Archive for the ‘Brand Worlds’ Category

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How Brands Protect Us

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Preface

The level of anxiety is becoming higher in the world today. It was traditionally high in Russia. It looks as if 20th century Russia lived under the motto “may you live in interesting times”. The country has gone through several wars, bold social experiments, dramatic changes and crises[1].

How did all this influence the lives of average Russian citizen and Russian culture overall? It became habitual to anticipate that unexpected disaster might happen. That families might lose all their savings. That social status might change from high to low and vice versa in several months. That results of planning and strategic thinking might turn into a joke. That it is important to value the current moment, to live here and now. It also brought a kind of tolerance of stress. Strength to overcome difficulties, durability and fortitude. Inventiveness and resourcefulness. Low trust in relation to state and government, the habit of relying on oneself.

After a relatively calm period between 2000 and 2013, negative events started again in 2014: the annexation of Crimea and economic sanctions from the West that followed; the collapse of the rouble in late 2014 (real incomes halved); the decrease in oil prices (the Russian economy being built on oil); two wars (Ukraine and Syria) – these have all had an impact on social mood and contributed to increasing anxiety.

On Сhart 1 we can see represented the dynamics of social mood from 2010 to 2017[2]. The level of anxiety is very high during all periods: it ranges from 36% to 49% of respondents, with the lowest average degree in 2013 and 2014 (after a calm decade), reaching the highest levels in the 1st quarter of 2015 (after the events of 2014) and the 1st quarter of 2016. In 2017 the crisis is still here, however, the social mood has become calmer. Citizens have adapted to the situation. Still 40% of people believe that in their environment anxiety prevails over tranquility.

The cultural peculiarities related to such high levels of social anxiety are manifested in several tendencies in consumer behaviour:

• Russian consumers prefer to spend rather than save. In the good times, they are very receptive to novelties and brands communication in general;

• Risky consumption is popular. Adventures, speed of life, self-indulgence – everything that helps take the most from the current moment.

• External signs of status and strength are very important in the dominant culture – rich and powerful are less vulnerable.

• Controlled consumption, attention to brands, reading packs before purchase. The belief that it is impossible to control external factors, but possible to control what one eats and buys.

In this article, we will analyze how the last two tendencies are represented in marketing communication and branding. We will show how brands in Russia help consumers in building personal strategies of safety. We will also provide some examples from the cultural and media fields.

Semiotic Codes of Protection in Branding

There are various ways in which brands in Russia are connecting with meanings of protection and safety:

One way is through a literal interpretation of the theme in the form of protecting borders, or products that provide strength and may help even in a physical sense (numbered below 1.1.-1.3.).

Another type of code utilizes topics that are not directly related to protection, but can decrease consumer anxiety in a subtler way: associations with kind nature, trusted traditions, or wise technology (see codes 2.1-2.3). Such codes describe sources of protection that exist in the outside world.

The third type of interpretation goes deeper to the understanding of safety and what it means to consumers. Such codes refer to signs of comfort, care, support of the community and control over personal choices (3.1-3.3). This group of codes speaks about human input in creating the sense of security: relationships and personal responsibility.

Some of the brand examples we provide for the second and the third group of codes probably were not aimed by their designers to communicate protection (or only protection). But they do so on the connotative level. They also show possible indirect ways of presenting safety, that may be used by other marketers.

On the Chart 2. we have summarized the main semiotic codes of protection observed in communication materials representing brands in Russia in the recent years. This chart describes the dominant semiotic field, the signs that are common and universally understood in Russian culture. Although the codes were derived from Russian material, we believe that some of them could be successfully integrated in marketing communication in other cultures or in global campaigns. Below is a description of the main codes.

• Protecting Barrier

This is one of the most popular codes in communication of safety and protection. “The barrier” speaks more about prevention of a problem, rather than relief. By using the code a brand becomes associated with a reliable partner. The border prevents a problem from intervening in the consumer’s life, be it insects, infection, dirt, or computer viruses. Very important here is the dichotomy “me-others”, or “a person – an outer world”, “friends – enemies”.

Symbols of barriers are often combined with the signifiers of efficacy and power: red, bright intense colors, images of heroes, strong animals. That is a kind of militant protection and it is usually used in communication of products which serve “against” something: medical remedies, insecticides, cleaning products, information security and such. Sometimes the product itself is portrayed as a barrier: for example, an SUV car or an IKEA home which hides its owners from the disasters of the world outside.

The code is almost never used in communication of “peaceful” products, which do not fight with the problem, but protect the consumer from it in other ways (vitamins, ecological food, gadgets).

Signs: shield, protecting circle, wall, shell, black color, thick and hard substances, etc. Also, metaphors of safety belt, lifebuoy.

 Image 1.1.                                                                                                                                           

• Handy tool 

This code is close in meaning to the previous one. It also speaks about fighting the problem. The “me-others” dichotomy is strong in this code too. Here, however, consumers are portrayed in a more independent and powerful position. They do not hide behind a shield; they take an active role in dealing with the situation. The product in the hands of a user adds strength, power and reliability. This is a predominantly masculine theme. Even in communication of unisex products, when a human character appears in the context of the code it is usually a man.

This theme is frequently used by companieswho associate their products or services with provision of safety: insurance, banking, pharma, food (security from hunger and lack of energy), household cleaning, personal hygiene.

Signs: firm and solid shapes, convenient to hold in the hand; a fist; dark colors, non-transparent surfaces; seriousness.

 Image 1.2.

 

• The Hero

Personification of a protecting figure. This appears in the three different forms: “Real man”, “Magic Helper” and “Strong Animal”.

“Real Man” – physically strong, big, usually serious. Patriarchal dream. He can be presented as a portrait of the consumer, or a man who protects the consumer. In the latter case, consumers are usually women, children, and more rarely other men (not as strong as the Hero).

“Magic Helper” – popular characters of superheroes (Spider Man, Super Man, Russian bogatyrs (knights)); animated characters, usually masculine; the product itself as a magic helper. The difference from “The Tool” is that in this code, the product acts itself. It is not a tool in a hand of a user, it is an independent character.

“Strong Animal” – lions, tigers, bears, horses and others. Brands are associated with the power, energy and aggression of these animals. The consumer is usually described as a handler. Sometimes animal energy is attributed to the consumer. Connotations of paganism.

Signs: powerful actions and actions above human abilities (flying, breaking walls); loud sounds, roaring; big muscles. The consumer is behind the hero, under protection of it. When the product is shown alone: camera angle down-up, light on the “hero”, central position in a shot, big size.

Image 1.3.                                                                                                                

• Calming Nature

Nature is a powerful resource for lowering anxiety. Green fields, blue sky and still water are well-known signs of calm. Calmness in its initial, clear form. These signs are widely used in marketing communication, especially in the food category, cosmetics and hygiene. The code connotes that the product protects consumers from threats associated with modern technologies (including chemical poisoning).

This code exists in the two main forms. The first is about the origin of a product: an ecologically clean region of Russia, a farm with eco-style production and so on. The second form speaks about one or more natural ingredients within a product.

Both versions are mainly used in branding for female audiences. Within this code, women are portrayed as tender, fragile and beautiful in a classic way.

Signs: green, beige, light-blues and other neutral clean colors; images of plants (flowers, herbs, berries, spices); little cute animals (sheeps, rabbits, birds); slow pace; static images. Text: “bio-…”, “eco-…”, “chemical-free”, “no additives / preservatives / GMO” and etc.

Image 2.1.

• Authority of Science

Although “Science” is not necessarily about protection, the associations with it are often used to communicate safety (“Rexona men – maximum defense”). Science provides safety from failure. It guarantees quality. The choice is supported by data and expert opinion. Scientific protection is advanced, precise and proved.

The code is mainly masculine, as it is based on the rational perception of the world (in the dominant cultural field in Russia rationalism is associated with masculinity – irrationalism and intuition with femininity).

One of the interpretations of the code is futurism – faith in a better, smarter future and new ways to provide security.

Signs: metal colors, smooth surfaces, formulas, figures and charts, micro-elements, scientists and experts, computers and robots, industrial images, futuristic factories and machines. Text: scientific terminology, abbreviations, names of chemical ingredients (Zn).

Image 2.2.

 

• Safety in Traditions

Safety sometimes lies in things proved by experience over several generations, well-known and habitual. Childhood memories, fairy tales, common food and recipes.

The popularity of symbols related to national traditions in culture and in branding has been growing in the recent years. The Russian Federation has a long history, although in its modern form, as a capitalist republic, the country is just about 30 years old. Russia is in search of its national identity.

There are several types of codes within this theme. Each of them idealizes a certain period of Russian history:

• Old Slavic traditions. Living in harmony with nature, brave souls, beautiful people

• Russia of the 19th Classic literature and music, aristocratic life-style

• Early USSR. Despite all the terrible events of the early decades, for many people it was a romantic period which provided several great stories in art – architecture, design, cinema, poetry

• Heroism of USSR in WW2. The nation that defeated fascism is strong and can protect itself in the future

• USSR of 1960s. First man in Space. Rock-n-roll. Retro style. “Thaw” in political system

• Late USSR. Good quality of some products, protected by government standards of production (GOSTs). Order and safety. Taste of childhood

• Present time. Russian soul. Local products.

Sometimes all these types are combined in the same communication campaign, showing the  rich history of the country.

Signs: historical elements, documentary style, stylizations, national symbols (such as birch).

 Image 2.3.

• Supportive Community

Protection may come from those who surround us. In the Russian collectivist culture, it is normal to expect support from family, friends and even from a stranger on the street (but citizens rarely expect help from the state and government).

The code is often used in marketing. Brands are trying to get the role of a friend or create an image of a supporting circle. For example, in the IKEA ad below, a group of strangers came to the NY party. The hosts invited them in friendship and did not show their surprise. Slogan: “Make yourself at home!”

Signs: holding hands, parties or family gatherings, domestic atmosphere (calm light, relaxed poses), friendly smiles and actions of help, support. Text: “always here”, “friends recommend”, “one of us”.

Image 3.1.

• Tender Care

This code is about soft and caring protection, which in Russian culture usually comes from women. Women feature in the majority of ads in pharma, food and household products categories. They are presented as experienced consumers, who know the available options and make the best choice for their families.

It is interesting that women are both the most frequent subjects of care and recipients of it. When brands communicate safety from anxiety through care, they usually show women as the consumer. In the second place – children and older people. Men are represented as recipients of care in the family environment, with children, at home. Very rarely are men shown receiving care in other circumstances.

Signs of caregiver: confident smiles, important, authoritative position in the shot, hugs and kisses. Signs of care receiver: relaxation, happy smile, images of enjoying (product, service). Serenity and calmness.

Image 3.2

 

• Informed Control  All the previous codes contained the idea of controlled consumption and personal responsibility. However, there are branding concepts in which this idea becomes central. The code is rational and it is based on informing consumers about possible threats and giving instructions on how to avoid them (or life hacks).

The theme also concerns the accessibility of information. Constant access to mobile and internet connection is the necessary attribute of safety today. Knowing the sources of trusted information is the way to feel protected in a world when media are full of lies and propaganda. Consumer online forums, recommending services, independent check-ups of products (RosControl company).

Signs: instructions, rules, schemes, long texts, explanations, information about details.

Image 3.3

Conclusions

In the article we described the most visible dominant codes of Protection in Russian marketing communication. These are often used in combination with each other, providing a complex image of safe and reliable brand.

We can see that the prevailing safety and protection themes in Russia tend to be rather patriarchal. Protection usually comes from masculine characters, or products that have masculine elements (the codes “Barrier”, “Tool”, “Hero”, “Science”). However women too can be protective figures (through “Care” or “Nature”) but most of the codes portray women as the recipients of protection.

The source of protection can be in the future or in the past. References to the past are more often used in brand communication in Russia. It seems that Russian marketers perceive technologies and futuristic dreams as great, but as the future is uncertain, they choose the symbols of past achievements and local traditions.

The analysis shown that there are many possible ways for a brand to communicate the meaning of safety, both direct and connotative, and thus help reduce anxiety in Russian society.                      

Footnotes

[1] The revolution of 1905; World War I; the Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of USSR; Civil War, hunger of 20-s; Stalin’s repressions of 1930-s; World War II, during which USSR lost from 20 to 40 million citizens (by different estimates). Pavlov’s money reform of 1960-s, war in Afghanistan in 1980-s. Gorbachev’s Perestroika, leading to the breakdown of USSR in 1991. Economic collapse of the 1990-s.

[2] FOM, Omnibus survey. Sample: 207 cities and villages, 73 regions of Russia, 3000 respondents. http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d05no2017.pdf

© Maria Papanthymou 2017

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Keeping the difference

Monday, November 28th, 2016

 

Desigual, the Spanish fashion brand launched in 1984 by Thomas Mayer, has always had a close relationship with its customers. Although it’s not completely mainstream (in terms of design and proposals), their communication strategy has been based upon the same spirit, all over the world: let’s keep (really) close to our followers (and avoid the distance with customers high fashion brands usually impose). They have expressed this in many ways: Kiss Tour is a concept that includes their events and shop openings/parties, which have nothing to do with the front row of most Fashion Weeks; “La vida es chula” (“Life is cool”), their slogan; feeble activity on social networks, sharing their backstages and some other insider details; keeping the conversation with the audiences and publics; asking their clients to become fashion models for a day; the Seminaked events and the Undie Parties

Nevertheless, and with the amazing growth they had in the last 5 years (which is clear to local customers due to the quantity of shops that have been opening in Spanish cities lately), there has been an ongoing comment: Desigual (which can be translated as “different/irregular/not the same”) is becoming really similar… to itself. There was a certain belief in Spanish society that some of the designs were quite repetitive and the core consumers of the first moment started to be a little disappointed. Yes, the brand celebrates life but it also used to be a unique style, not easy to find at the beginning and which gave wearers a certain urban-style distinction. And all that was starting to evaporate.

To make things worse, there was a lawsuit from Custo Barcelona in 2008; this brand said Desigual was getting “too much” inspiration from their designs… The buzz was starting to get louder and it was defying the fresh relationship Desigual had with their customers; moreover, its originality and uniqueness —the core values of the brand— were being questioned.

The campaign

So in answer to this they resorted to good old advertising, on YouTube and television. They launched their first ever audiovisual campaign in 2012, which also included a hashtag, in order to encourage conversation in social media.

But why did it work? Just because it was on TV and it sent a clear message? Not at all. A brand that had distinguished itself for being so unusual had to go beyond that. They still needed to keep it different and also maintain the fresh relationship with their clients.

The spots

The late 2012 campaign included 3 spots under the same spirit, which was expressed in the hashtag #tengounplan (“I have a plan”) for the New Year. The three young women that appear in each of the ads are quite daring in their own way: one —probably the less interesting proposal— was going to drop everything and travel around the world, taking a break from the financial crisis in Spain, from her life and boyfriend, because she wanted to take pleasure in living; another one was going to tell her boss she liked him and she wanted to have sex with him, “whatever the girls from the accounting department say”, because “we are here to enjoy life”; and the third one was finally going to introduce her female partner —the love of her life— to her family.



Sex and tolerance, the culture codes

Why where these ads appealing and not rejected as they would have been in other societies? Because Desigual knows its customers and the culture they live in. The two last spots invoke an attitude that represents a strong culture code in Spain: although it is quite a traditional society in many aspects —and being “traditional” in Spain has mostly good connotations—, in terms of real acceptance of diversity (in this case, gender roles and identities), it is quite open and respectful in daily life, something that was formally expressed in the same-sex marriage law in 2005 and in the law about gender equality in 2007.

They also appeal to another culture code related to enjoying life —which is a feature of the Spanish way of being/living­—, that went on in the two following campaigns, under the #hazloporlamañana (“Do it in the morning”, 2013) and #yomeatrevo (“I dare”) hashtags: sex is lived as something joyful and enjoyable by most of Spanish society, something that is openly talked about and referred to. (Other campaigns that represent this clearly in Spain are the ones from Durex: they focus on sex as a pleasurable activity, and they don’t talk about contraception at all, as they do in other countries). A recent and successful book by Roser Amills also reinforces this idea: its title is I like sex, and its author is a female journalist who also writes about technology in one important newspaper. This could be something shocking for other cultures: in Spain, you are who you are, and this is not necessarily determined by what you do. And of course, you are allowed to do as many things as you want, without being too judged by society in daily life.

The challenge and the shift

Through a deep understanding of the society and the core codes/values of their brand, Desigual re-thought the meaning of being different, fresh and daring: they lifted it from design to the people they dress. This was a smart move: there are still many brands that get mad at their audiences because they “don´t understand” what they are conveying and get stuck with the same message and tactics. Thinking over the core brand meanings and developing strategies to express them in new and appealing ways is a great way of keeping your followers next to you and of showing you care and hear their complaints, something essential in the era of social media. This negative buzz was transformed into something else: being fresh and different it’s not only about the design, it’s about you and your attitude in life. And Desigual is (still) by your side, celebrating distinctness.

And now?

Although there was a different turn in the ad they launched for Christmas 2015 (which was so general it could have fitted any other brand, such as H&M, Zara or Mango), they’ve kept the essential spirit about attitude in the early 2015 campaign with #queves (#whatdoyousee) proposal, which features Chantelle Winnie, a model with vitiligo —challenging traditional and mainstream ideas about beauty—, and the recent 2016 “Hundred miles”, which also includes older women. So the “Desigual” spirit is still alive, breathing and working well.

© Gabriela Pedranti 2016

 

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Creolised Fashion

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

 

Creolised fashion: Chanel, ChiChiA, Guinness

I’ve recently become obsessed with gorgeous clothes from a fashion brand remixing African fashion with western elements. ChiChiA presents Tanzanian khanga cloth with an East London edge: rips, tailored and boxy shapes. The clothes are glorious – and their marketing reminded me of Guinness’ 2014 ‘sapeurs’ ad, featuring Congolese men who compete to be the most snappily dressed in smartly tailored suits. ChiChiA’s work made me realise just what worked about Guinness’ ad, and gain insight into the dividing line between cultural homage and cultural appropriation.

okayafrica1

The difference between fashion and costume is incomprehensibility. If an outfit is full of recognisable signs pointing to a single meaning, it is costume, with a meaning clear enough to take over the wearer and erase her. If its signs clash, it isn’t immediately comprehensible to anyone except the wearer – and it’s fashion.

A full skirt worn with peeptoe heels, a twinset and hairbow is a fifties costume; a full skirt worn with a leather crop-top is fashion.

This dependence on mixed signs is similar to creolisation, in which associations from multiple heritages combine to create a cultural fusion defining itself spatially instead of historically: a country, city, or in the case of fashion, a human body.

Desirable modern personalities are often creolised: either literally, as in the desirability of ethnically mixed bodies in culture (think Rihanna with her green eyes, Chrissy Teigen or African-American albino model Shaun Ross), or in their awareness of many different cultures and aesthetics. A lack of easy comprehensibility forces attention to the person who is the site of creolisation, giving them the authenticity of fashion rather than costume.

fashionista1

Brands often aim to demonstrate creolisation, and land at cultural borrowing. One of the most woeful examples is Chanel, which tried to remix the traditional feathered Native American headdress as a symbol of ‘craftsmanship’ in 2013, and was confronted with near-universal accusations of racism and appropriation. Ultimately, Chanel’s whole show was associated with the ‘basic bitch’, a white girl wearing Native American headdresses to festivals: someone who clings to signs which are both hollow and obviously comprehensible.

This self-presentation lacks cool because it lacks incomprehensibility. The individual basic bitch is not a space where fashion and personality are created, but a wearer of borrowed costume: on a non-Native American, the headdress is a loud failure to be fashion, and a less resilient or smaller brand than Chanel couldn’t have recovered from it.

telegraph1

ChiChiA escapes inauthenticity because its non-western influences come from the designer/founder’s own heritage, in contrast with Chanel’s, but that isn’t all; Guinness’ Irish roots couldn’t be less relevant to the Congo, and their ad was still well-received, seen as expanding rather than devaluing the drink brand. What works is that these brands are reflecting already-creolised cultures: sapeur fashion arises from a long history of cultural crossover, and ChiChiA evokes London’s status as one of the world’s most powerful creolising societies.

In both examples, signs from different cultures are translated by and into each other in fashion, as in creolisation. Elements which resist translation come to signify their own origins, often over and above their original culture-specific meanings.

ChiChiA’s marketing towards creolised cultures, as well as around them, is reflected in its founder’s summary of Tanzanian-heritage women’s reactions to her fashion: ‘You wear a khanga at home to clean the house, not to a party.’ That’s why she doesn’t make khangas: she mixes the khanga cloth with western structures like crop tops, shoulderpads and pencil skirts. Sapeur fashion also mixes classic European tailoring with bright African colours, making the resulting outfit an embodied assertion of creolisation. Creolisation’s ability to give khanga the higher-level sign of Tanzanian-ness, and erase its culture-specific meaning of casualness, is like the three-piece suit’s ability to signify European-ness rather than stuffy formality when worn, in bright colours, in the Congo.

These jostled signs, creolised into incomprehension, are the type of existing cultural interaction that brands can borrow from without accusations of appropriation. Guinness’ sapeur association isn’t a borrowing of an untranslated sign; it’s associating Guinness with creolisation itself.

Black creolisation

 For an example of larger-scale marketing towards rather than around creolisation, we can look at Guinness’ post-sapeur Africa campaign, Made Of Black, which figures blackness as creolisation itself.

This definition is common among African-Americans, whose culture is arguably the most successful of the 20th century. Made Of Black’s flagship ad uses Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ as soundtrack, a song whose title’s creolisation is so tense that it’s almost an oxymoron, associating a punk movement with strong white supremacist undertones with black power. The song includes lyrics in praise of the main driver of literal creolisation, interracial sex, and is also a valorisation of a culture defined as ‘black’ but in fact creolised; a distinction which becomes more obvious when African-American cultural signs are positioned beside un-American African signs in Guinness’ video.

guinness1

Guinness positions its ‘blackness’ as necessarily polyphonic, presenting many different African celebrities in the ad. It also includes multiple bright colours on the face of a black model, and mixtures of various African, European and African-American influences – such as breakdancers against a background of north African/ Arabic-inspired prints. This combination invites Africans to identify themselves with the creolisation of African-Americans,positioning such creolisation as desirable: an aim with obvious benefits to a European product trying to become an important element in African cultures.

But Guinness’ blackness is not only ethnic. The ad points to ‘black’ as a ‘mindset’ or ‘attitude’ incorporating diversity, cultural rebellion and the site of fashionable identity mixing, pulling on cultural connotations of black as the colour into which all colour dissolves. This positioning of blackness as a space where many diverse associations meet has been prefigured by rappers playing with the concept of blackness. For instance, in Jay Z’s ‘Run This Town’ video, the “all black everything” lyric and aesthetic refer to clothing as well as ethnicity; to the anarchists using black as a symbol of countercultural freedom and the fashionistas using it as noncommittal catchall chic, as well as the immediate meaning of negritude or black power.

 Black as creolised space is a very powerful association. But Guinness’ discussion of blackness is made tense by its uncertain positioning of creolisation. The beer’s blackness is simultaneously portrayed as already creolised, a space where various cultures have found a home; and at the same time, allied to the extremely broad space of Africa and its multiple non-creolised cultures.

This causes uneasiness: is Guinness a site, like ChiChiA, or an element?

And that tension may be the cause of the ad’s mixed reception, as Africans remain unsure who is being ‘made’ in its tagline. Is Guinness paying homage to the role of black or African drinkers in creating its brand, or are they being encouraged to pay homage to its role in their racial/ cultural identity?

Power lines are the faultlines in any society, but especially so in creolised cultures, built at the same time by and in resistance to colonising elements. ChiChiA’s founder can own creolisation as a black woman in a way that is politically problematic for Guinness to use as a European brand. The campaign’s success will test and be tested by the extent to which Guinness is already embedded in the African cultures that ‘Made of Black’ targets.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

 

 

 

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Creme Eggs

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Creme Eggs and the Subjectivity of Childishness

Winner of Semionaut New Writers Award 2016

Crème Egg wrappers dissolve luxury codes – the sparkle of foil, the personalisation of variable wrapping, the red and purple power colours – into luxury chocolate’s traditional liquidity paradigm. Crème Eggs are the only popular adults’ single-serving chocolate, available casually and as an individual product in a way that luxury boxed chocolates aren’t, and differing from bars because they can’t be shared, divided or saved for later. Through looking at Crème Eggs’ technique for making adults choose this single luxury serving of chocolate each year, we can find out about the liquidity paradigm’s modern applicability to the subjectivity of childhood, rather than that of female sexuality.

Creme Egg 1

Nostalgia is culturally treacherous, due to its easy slipping point into twee and the difficulty of cross-generational appeal, but childishness in its free-flowing subjectivity is always appealing. Crème Egg’s erratically folded foil and the yellow ‘splat’ – looking, as it flows over the egg’s curves, more like a spill – invites adults to assume the vision of a child who doesn’t know it is an object. In millennial terms, this is a break from ‘adulting’, a verb which openly opposes the performance of adulthood to the real, subjective self of childhood.

Culturally, the freedom of childhood is closely linked to Easter feelings of renewal. The three-month period of Crème Egg availability, like the Lenten period, mimics the pregnancy preceding the springtime rebirth of the year: a dynamic acknowledged by both Christianity and the pagan religions whose springtime rebirth celebrations it assimilated. So it’s fitting that the Crème Egg prompts associations with childhood and interiority, linking it in British minds not just with childhood Easter celebrations and holiday, but with these older, more primal senses of the rebirth of the year.

Subjectivity

Flake 1

Women are often encouraged to dissolve their everyday selves into melting chocolate imagery, entering a Cixous-inspired world of liquid, sensual subjectivity. Taste is more subjective and so more private than sight or hearing, which can be reproduced and shared by machines such as cameras or sound recorders. The privacy of taste is the secondary connotation of the typical closing of a woman’s eyes as she tastes the chocolate (with the first connotation being, of course, orgasm).

This sensuality is coded as sexual, but even as the ad presents the woman to external gaze, it insists by focussing on taste that the chocolate is allowing subjectivity. The female sexuality in chocolate adverts, though displayed, isn’t purchasable by men as many brand portrayals of female sexuality are. Rather, its transcendence is so focussed on women’s subjective experience that any chocolate brand wishing to target men must explicitly and aggressively position itself as male: in the simplest form, Yorkie is declared ‘Not for girls!’

Crème Egg’s invitation to transcendence extends to both sexes, but otherwise follows the subjectivity model. Minimal packaging reiterates the egg shape, which acts as a pointer towards a single person’s mouth (it’s impossible to eat a Crème Egg broad end first). Easily cupped in the hand, this shape gives a sense of almost weaponised purpose, borrowing from bullets and grenades. The invitation to the subjective is deepened by the variability in packaging which comes from wrapping an asymmetric egg in a rectangle of foil: it’s possible to select your egg with mostly yellow, red, purple or logo showing, according to your preference. And the non-uniform folds make the eater shy away from the ritualised process of (for example) untwisting a Lindor twist, in favour of a personalised process according to the trajectory of the wrapper of the specific Crème Egg chosen. The wavering line of the wrapper signifies the messy, fluid boundary between egg and world, or egg and mouth.

Fluid identity and pre-digital childhood

Crème Eggs offer a childish space valorised by luxury codes, not a luxury space with childish accents. This order of associations is reinforced by the anchoring logo, whose position across the lower, broader curve of the egg pushes the modern, lower-case, printed crème egg logo out further than the more traditionally luxurious handwritten Cadbury’s logo. But Cadbury’s 19th century associations are nonetheless an important part of Crème Egg’s childishness offer.

The 21st century exchange of purple for blue quirked the childish primary triumvirate on the Crème Egg packaging. It also emphasised retro luxury. Cadbury has never reacted to the post-industrial-dye devaluation of purple, which is a bold, traditional luxury signifier (as is red, to a lesser extent). These colours are pre-postmodern and non-ironic, from a time before one-note elegance became desirable. This retro flamboyance also calls on a strong, particularly millennial, association of bold childishness with freedom from the single objective self.

In an act of cultural mimesis echoing recapitulation theory, the pre-digital self often represents the childish self – gloriously subjective and fluid. Steampunk is the clearest expression of this cultural association, but it’s also seen in the adoption of over-the-top hipster disguises (most obviously Victorian-style beards) among millennials.

For a certain generation which includes myself, the pre-digital world and childhood are literally the same era, but that isn’t the only reason why subjective freedom, pre-digital culture, and childhood are allied for us. Childish games of disguise and dissolution are the target of cultural hunger for a pre-internet world in the minds of people whose digital personas are fixed and tracked by everyone from school friends to advertisers. In Crème Egg packaging we see how childhood fluid subjectivity mingles with the hunger for pre-digital subjectivity, using bold colour codes which are at once retro and toddler-like.

The wrapper’s white line, dividing the 19th century red and purple, suggests the separations and enforced categorisations of everyday life. But Crème Egg eaters aren’t encouraged to think about the quirkiness or ‘wackiness’ lying in this liminal line, as they are in many products promoting childishness in adults. Rather, the liquid freedom of childhood obliterates categories and liminality at the same time (as the yellow splat and logo override the white line on the egg wrapper), inviting the eater to ride roughshod over the entirety of the objective world. This letting-go, coded as childish by other signifiers, makes the Crème Egg a space of release – pre-digital, pre-adult, and fluid – for all.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

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Coming of Age

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Malcolm Evans and Peter Rock have been collaborating since September 2015 on a project to database semiotic & cultural data & insight into themes influencing people aged 50+, a demographic with whom advertisers and marketers could profitably improve their communication. This is an initial look at the UK leg of that work in progress.

In March 2013 Sraboni Bhaduri looked, for Semionaut, at changes in representations of older people in Indian advertising. Here we do the same for UK. This comes at a time when popular culture, especially film, is very much involved with themes around ageing and mortality, and a series of high-profile celebrity deaths have prompted a time of reflection. We give below the headlines on the Ageing theme in UK advertising’s Residual (dated), Dominant (mainstream) and more emergent (dynamic, forward-looking) codes – and say more about representative campaigns and executions.

AgeRDE

The Residual codes are partly based on cultural memory and nostalgia: Dame Thora Hird’s ticket to ride on the patriotically-named Churchill Stairlift in the 1990s (how different in her ageing aunty persona from our 2016 dames, Judi & Helen); the forlorn J.R. Hartley haunting second hand bookshops in the 1980s in search of a volume he once wrote on fly fishing, before finding it via Yellow Pages; the Werther’s Original kindly grandfather, updated and professionalized as an older male confectionery chef in the most recent TV execution.

Our example here of how the codes of the past can endure into the present is Michael Parkinson for Sun Life insurance. This plays on an ancient formula in which the older celebrity male twinkles to camera and takes the “If you’re like me…” mature market into his confidence. Parkinson talks directly but discretely about death and how to make provision to avoid inconveniencing those we leave behind. In the past, on these relatively unsophisticated 50+ communications, a free biro might be thrown in at some point as an incentive to respond for the frugal pensioner. This has been updated today to a choice from an attractive range of higher value gifts for anyone who signs up. With the pen, going to anyone who even applies for details, upgraded to a Parker – once a near-luxury marque for this generation. A result all round, one surmises, with Yorkshireman Parkinson (knowing what’s what, calling a spade a spade etc) belying his super-rich status and standing up for the canny consumer.

specsv

The Dominant codes are more complex. Some of that Residual harmlessness and eccentricity lives on – in the comic catatonia modulating to Dionysiac frenzy of the old men and women in the Specsavers Aerobics Instructor ad, for example, and the toe-curling sentimentality of the 2015 John Lewis Christmas ad, which took viewers into the darker area of isolation among UK’s elderly population: “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas”. This ran in parallel with the charity Age Concern’s awareness-raising campaign (“No Friends”) with its ironic Facebook generation echo – and soon-to-emerge connotations of exploiting the vulnerable when press headlines appeared in February 2016 alleging that the energy giant E.ON “paid £6m to Age UK in return for the charity promoting expensive tariffs to pensioners”.

There is a stark contrast in this mainstream area between recent still glamorous endorsers of anti-ageing products (for l’Oreal, Jane Fonda, at the time of writing, is 78, Helen Mirren rapidly approaching 71) and the shambling objectified old geezers in the Barclays Digital Eagles ad about Walking Football. As this game, designed to ensure that the infirm can still compete and have fun, explicitly targets men of 50 and over (young enough for Jane and Dame Helen to be their mums) we have some dissonance here between how 20- or 30-something ad men see their older co-genderists and how the 50+ male nowadays sees himself. This is profoundly stereotypical and non-aspirational mirroring.

Barclayswalk

An older colleague suggested chirpily to me that the walking game should be staged in a Shawshank Redemption-style prison yard where crowds of football lovers now in their eighth year of austerity cheer on the guilty (yet uncannily plucky and somehow sympathetic) bankers, with their balls and chains, as they drag and dribble along. Because they’re worth it. A quick antidote for the agency – watch the first 15 minutes of Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day 2007 reunion concert film (Robert Plant was then 59, Jimmy Page 63, John Paul Jones 62– all on top of their game and some). That’s a bit closer to how the inner wrinkly, as you see him, (AKA a grown-up) likes to see himself. Even next generation drummer Bonzo Jr., currently 49 (June 2016), will qualify for his Walking Football permit soon.

CelebrationDay

More needs to be said about the anti-ageing codes. Keeping a questioning of self-worth on the agenda for women (even by explicitly affirming you are worth it) is at best a questionable activity. Are you planning at any point to suggest overtly to Sir Ian McKellen that he might be worth it? Or maybe Charlie Watts? One of our most insightful critics of these cultural representations wrote recently that the time has come to move on from anti-ageing to pro-ageing. The fact is, if you deconstruct the codes and signifiers of this category carefully enough, that this shift, very subtly, has actually already begun.

The trajectory overall so far is: from gentleness, eccentricity, common sense (with a twinkle); to pathos, humour & ambivalent empowerment, with occasional lapses back into a grotesque objectification that would never pass today in relation to ethnic, religious or gender differences but is still alive and well in the world of ageism. All the more alarming because (unless we are negligent or unlucky) we will, as is not necessarily the case with other forms of diversity and otherness, be there ourselves one day. The apparent ease, culturally, with which one may become a self-hating ageing person, for we all age from the moment we’re born, is just wilfully storing up even bigger problems arising from ignorance and prejudice for ourselves later on. Having reached 80, on his birthday, the late great Acker Bilk said “By the time you get to my age you’re either 80 or you’re dead. And on balance I’d rather be 80”. Obvious but worth saying. Just what mortality said it would do on the tin.

blackstar7
David Bowie, Blackstar

So to the Emergent zone in ads.

Contextually what’s happening, with regard to ageing, in popular culture in UK (and arriving from the US and/or mainland Europe) is amazing. The generation after the first teenagers (the ones who perfected youth culture), the ones who were hippies, mods, rockers, all that, who were the puppet-masters of punk, are now in their late 60s (a magic second coming-of-age decade which shares its name with a magic historical decade) or 70s and… guess what… promise you won’t laugh… ageing and death have become cool. Now who would have guessed the Boomers were going to make that happen? There are some quick tasters in Paolo Sorrentino’s sublime film Youth (starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda), in The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, in the devastating Still Alice, of course, and in the very private yet transcendentally public death of David Bowie (a brilliant business model – enjoy your post-death royalties from investors up front while you’re alive, then pay them back with knobs on by staging the most charismatic and commercially astute exit in almost two millennia – nice one – you’re definitely worth it, Ziggy!)

And the ad men are beginning to respond with an emerging light-touch mix of wisdom, love, compassion, kindness, integration, strength, the spark of life and shared mortality. A lot to ask, perhaps, but it’s all there when the fear, denial, objectification and stereotyping are suspended and the authentic values of the return half of life’s journey gain expression.

The examples:
DoveGreyHair

Dove celebrates the beauty of grey hair, tapping into a cultural trend, making a point to do so in the context of hair (and people) diversity rather in a cultural ghetto specific to Oldies. Being addressed as a semiotically ‘unmarked’ person (rather than specifically as old, gay, black, Muslim etc) can occasionally be heartening and on the side of life. Then how to showcase perfectly in a branded commercial format the elegant understatement and ever-present latent menace of Harvey Keitel, ironically morphed into a kindliness which allows Direct Line to bring their edgy transposition of Werther’s Original-style warmth and security to the emotionally fraught and inherently uncertain world of car and home insurance.

WonderfulLife

Finally two ads which touch on the highly topical dominion of death, the ever-present, however shadowy at times, elephant in room 50+. IKEA follow the happy memories of a couple, as boosted by love and imagination and as seen more realistically in the family album – and poignantly as the woman, now older, sits with her granddaughter and glances over at the empty chair. A brand which specialises in feet-on-the-ground democratic excellence and understanding life’s transitions just about rescues the execution from the semiotics of non-ironic greetings cards.

FirstChoice2

In The First Choice all-inclusive holidays “Seeker” ad, where the music track (The Who’s 1970 single name-checking the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary – it only reached number 19 in the UK charts so still has freshness and cultural discoverability) is, subtly supported by vintage styling and aura, the only thing that explicitly interpellates UK youth culture’s greatest generation. While an underwater sequence cues in dream imagery, the unconscious, a wandering through one’s personal avatars of male or female, youth, childhood, middle age and what may be to come.

It’s clear from this execution that it doesn’t take a representation of an older person (whether IKEA’s glancing soft-focus emotion or documentary observation of physical decline set off by jaunty comic music Barclays-style) for the 50+ target to empathize and identify. They have a fluid lifetime of those avatars to tap into. And no one can know better the import of this First Choice execution’s joyful, impulsive take on carpe diem. Seize the day, nurture and harvest the time. Don’t always mirror what the sceptic, with a jaundiced unloving eye, sees on the outside. If ever the person inside becomes an old codger, he or she’s already dead. And you’re not going to sell them anything. No one knows better that you have to be mindful, active, fully in the moment. The sound track keeps stopping just before “The Seeker”s punch-line and jump-cutting to later in the song. This is the ad’s lyrical absent presence: “Don’t get to get what I’m after/ Till the day I die”. But you do. You will. You can have it now. It’s already well past the point where you still have to pinch yourself and remember that this is not a rehearsal.

FirstChoice

© Malcolm Evans 2016

With heartfelt thanks to the UK MRS Advanced Semiotics class of May 2016 – Elisabeth Bennett, Sarah Hall, Lyndsay Kelly, Tom Pattison, Laure Payen

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Network: Marc

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

 

 

Your experiences in education – did you encounter semiotics? If not, what difference do you think such an encounter would have made?

Although not taught as semiotics, there used to be huge focus on textual and visual analysis throughout primary and secondary education in my native Bulgaria. Thinking about it now, it feels like it was often a necessity. Each year, the list of mandatory summer reading books was invariably dominated by authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whose works always inevitably required deeper analysis back in the classroom. The constant nudge to look for the deeper meaning in texts and signs quickly evolved into a favourite pastime. So, when I heard about commercial semiotics as a research methodology, I instantly wanted to know more. Luckily, with the international research I do, I often have the opportunity to use semiotics and those early lessons are certainly coming in useful now.

How does it feel being the first (and currently still only) adopter and main spokesperson for semiotics in a business employing over 100 people? What are your best soundbites for catching colleagues’ attention, encouraging them to get involved in semiotics?  

I’m lucky to have a very supportive network of colleagues who are constantly looking for new ways of enhancing our offer and openly welcome new ideas. When I came back from the semiotics training course, I didn’t expect there would be such an appetite for semiotics in the business, but it quickly transpired that a few colleagues had worked with semioticians in the past and their experiences were overwhelmingly positive, so it wasn’t a difficult sell at all. Looking at where we are as a business now and how our offer is evolving, it makes a lot of sense to integrate semiotics and make it a de facto methodology for certain types of projects.

For those colleagues who are less familiar with semiotics, talking about going beyond the obvious, unlocking deeper insight, and gaining an understanding of how their categories are structured symbolically seems to have particular resonance and stopping power. For those working on international projects, the hook is ‘cultural insight’ and help in understanding the subtle nuances that drive different interpretations, attitudes and behaviours across different cultures.

Elevator pitch – what would you tell a prospective client about semiotics?

The way I see semiotics is as a higher-gear research methodology that can help you quickly get to the nub of the matter and harness emerging trends. Particularly useful if you’re looking to solve long-standing puzzles, find the edge in crowded categories and/or scale a brand internationally.

The picture you have chosen to illustrate this interview – your thoughts about it, why did this come to mind?

I came across this print ad from Hut Weber (German hat manufacturer) fairly recently and thought it beautifully summed up in 2 simple images and 3 words what semiotics is all about, i.e. understanding how subtle signs, which our brains process intuitively, work to change our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

Hut Weber

For me, 3 distinctive elements in this comms piece exemplify what semiotics looks at and why it is such a powerful methodology for unlocking fresh insights:

OBJECT: the presence of a simple object – that of a hat – completely changes who we see and what we associate that image with. The hat changes the image of the man from the evil, sadistic Adolph Hitler to the charming, fun-loving Charlie Chaplin. The echo, in the Hitler image, of the cover of Timur Vermes’s satirical novel Er Ist Wieder Da (translated as Look Who’s Back) adds a reflexive twist to this transformation. Vermes’s Hitler, having woken up in Berlin in 2011, reinvents himself as a  TV comedy star.

HISTORY: if this same print ad had aired 100 years ago when both Hitler and Chaplin were 25 years old, but certainly not as well-known as they are today, it wouldn’t have carried the same meaning as it does today.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: looking specifically at how the two images are positioned in relation to each other, we see a positive progression from left to right, which is how the encoder of this message intended us to interpret it knowing that the convention in the Western world is to read from left to right. But this subtlety in interpretation can easily be lost in Arabic or certain Asian cultures for example who don’t read or decode messages in the same way. There’re bound to be some differences and from a research perspective, it’s great to know that this is something semiotics can help with by bringing deep cultural insight to the table.

© Marc Dimitrov 2016

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Homes in India (3)

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

 

Objects and symbols in the Indian home space

Typical objects found with uncanny regularity across homes, trace the strands of the narrative that runs through the idea of home in India. It is a space that belongs to the familial collective rather than to the individual and therefore carries the responsibility of representing the family to the larger collective. As soon as he walks in, the visitor is sure to run into the great Indian ‘showcase.’ It is a glass fronted cabinet which typically contains trophies and medals won by the children, toys evoking memories of their childhood, wedding pictures, fifty year old pictures of parents in the early years of their marriage and sundry objects that represent the bricolage of the family’s pride & joy.

The home belongs to the familial collective and everyone & everything contained in that space is jealously guarded. Guarding against the evil eye and ushering in prosperity is a theme that underlines the divide between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Feng shui Buddha and the Ganesha will sit on the same shelf, united in their endeavour of securing the auspiciousness of the home space.

baby pic in drawing room pg21

There are some decidedly intriguing objects like soft toys, artificial flowers, posters of babies and ingenuous ways to install covers on all kinds of objects that mark Indian homes. What do these things mean? Why are medieval locks sitting alongside modern security measures? Why do plastic chairs find favour in rural homes as well as in modern urban homes? The shift in identity from the familial collective to that of nascent individuality has heralded the idea of décor; but the unique collection of objects still makes it an unmistakably Indian home.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

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Semionaut Award 2016

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

 

The editorial team is delighted to be launching the second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of semiotics, communication, culture and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by Space Doctors, of $1000 USD – plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field. The prize will be awarded to the winner of a short essay contest (600 to maximum 1500 words), in the Semionaut genre embodied by the pieces on the site and the entries shortlisted for the last award , with deadline for entrants of 17th April 2016.

TarkSol

All candidates shortlisted will, like the winner, have their work published by Semionaut and receive detailed feedback from experienced analysts plus guidance on next steps in terms of Semionaut network contacts and possible career development.

The contest is open to students and recent graduates world wide.  It will be judged by a panel comprising representatives from Semionaut editorial and Space Doctors along with one of the best know names in academic semiotics internationally. The award will be based on the quality of insight, analysis and creative flair displayed in the 600-1500 word essay submitted by the successful candidate.  This may, if appropriate, be supported by a larger body of work showing evidence of the skills we are looking to showcase. All material submitted should be written in English.

Key criteria in reaching the final decision will be the accessibility of the analysis and writing, with potential appeal to a non-specialist non-academic readership, and what people in the marketing and consumer insight world call actionability – work which embodies the usefulness of this type of analysis and the things that can be done with it, in terms of brand strategy, public policy, or advancing a cause.

For full competition rules and to submit your entry please email awards@semionaut.net

Links to the papers shortlisted for the first Semionaut Award:

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-arief/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-celeny/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-hannah/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-matthew/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-taras/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-troy/

 

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Tamasha: the other you inside

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Tamasha, released in November 2015, did only moderately well at the box office. But it got people talking. Underneath all the Mona-Ajit humour and the love story, there is a message in the movie that may be worth digging out and looking at.

It is not the familiar tale of following your dreams. There are plenty of Bollywood fables around the struggle of becoming a cricketer, musician or runner.

Tamasha_(film_poster)

It creates conversation because it is perhaps the only one that conducts a considered exploration of the dilemma between individual and societal identity in India.

For aeons, identity in India has been contiguous in nature. You never imagined your existence independently – still to date, in youth focus groups, ambitions centre on buying a house and car for the parents – the future self was visualized through the lens of family and society.

It was not just a shared identity but a societal identity one had to undertake. You had to cater to a societal ‘idea’ of who you were. You had to choose from a caste system of cookie-cutter identities on offer, doctor, engineer or IAS (soon followed by MBA).

No matter your individual uniqueness, you were obliged to fit into one of these moulds in order to be certified ‘successful’. Each ‘identity’ came with an unwritten code on how to live, talk, and behave. You had to give up your real self once you joined this program.

Everything ‘you’, that did not fit the mould was extruded out to become a ‘hobby’ you were free to practice on a Sunday. ‘Hobby’ was a mechanism to release the ‘abnormal you’, so as not to interfere with your social mobility and societal standing.

Individualism had little space in this struggle for upward mobility. Individualized hairstyles were largely absent. People with weird hair and casual behaviour were in the arts and journalism. They lived as they wanted but we were warned adequately that these people had to struggle all their life.

Meanwhile the exiled, abnormal you would make occasional appearances when it had an opportunity or when society gave permission to be yourself. It would find expression in college festivals or on Holi or at quiz competitions or at a wedding sangeet or at an office cricket league or betting pool.

Tamasha talks about this extruded us, the abnormal us, the ‘other you inside’ that we always carry within. Tamasha is about the bi-polar existence of us. Tamasha is (an exploration and) a calling to get in touch with the real you.

Tamasha is reflective of the changes taking place in Indian society. The technology, economic and business environment is throwing up opportunities that no longer fit the traditional mould. The digitalization of India makes it possible for us to pursue our unique strengths and yet be successful without submitting to any program that robs us from ourselves. The societal and individual identity for once is collapsing and fusing into one. Today it is possible to be successful without giving up on who you really are. Indian youth for the first time have a tremendous opportunity to live out extremely authentic lives, 24X7.

For the first time there is talk of running a race of your own choice rather than running on a track designed by your parents and society. Today it is possible to dream your own dream rather than being a vehicle for playing out a dream handed over to you by your parents and society.

(We see evidence of this blossoming individualism in the mushrooming of hairstyles. Today’s youthful hairstyles of spikes and textures and slashes and cuts, stand up and speak out aloud the individuality of the person sporting it, rather than being helplessly flattened with hair oil to convey conformity. The Indian cricketer’s varied hairstyles are perhaps a good example of this proliferation of individual identities).

Tamasha celebrates this world where this unique madness of ours is worn on our sleeves and we live out the ‘tamasha’ inside us instead of choosing to live a normative life chosen by others. The time is right to let the ‘other you inside’ step out and play and cavort on the stage that is today’s India.

© Subodh Deshpande 2016

See here for Tamasha production details and plot summary.

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Award Time Again

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

 

The editorial team is delighted to flag up the imminent launch of a second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. This will happen early in the New Year 2016. The prize, sponsored again by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy Space Doctors, will be $1000 USD plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field.

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Have a look at our interview with the winner of the inaugural Semionaut Award, Hannah Hoel, who found out about the opportunity by googling ‘semiotic writing award’ and ‘cultural theory writing award’ – and who now works full-time in the world of brand semiotics.

The brief for entries and the competition rules will be much as for the inaugural Semionaut Award – just to give you time to think about possible topics over the festive season and/or alert any prospective new writers you know. The judging team will also be suggesting in the launch announcement, early in January 2016, some broad themes and topics that may be of particular current interest to Semionaut readers.

Nice day to start again. Watch the skies.

 

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Network: Hannah

Friday, December 18th, 2015

 

Tell us about your piece that won the Semionaut New Writers award.  How did the thought come to you and how did it develop?

I started writing my essay for Semionaut, “Is this heaven? Reflections on Barthes and Facebook,” while trying to craft my BFA thesis statement. My thesis was called “Friendship in the Age of Facebook” and functioned as a social practice exercise that probed into shifting notions of sincerity. I was thus revisiting lots of texts from my Goldsmith’s Visual Culture degree like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of course Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and picking my mother’s knowledge banks of Shakespeare plays about mistaken identities like Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream. What followed was an unruly 2000 word document that tried to capture absolutely everything all at once. Although it helped inform my BFA statement, it took on a life of its own. Semionaut prompted a massive edit where I focused on a single text. I think it’s about 800 words now.

How did you hear about the award and what was your reaction when you won it?

I was working on said epic document and was writing art criticism but I wanted to branch out and was actively looking for writing opportunities. My grandmother taught me about semiotics when I was quite young and I studied it at Goldsmiths so I just did a Google search for “semiotic writing award” and/or “cultural theory writing award” and literally the only thing that came up was the Semionaut award. I submitted the essay just under deadline a few days after Thanksgiving.

1280px-Echo_and_Narcissus

So often you submit to these things and don’t really expect to hear anything back. But I did—first the short list and then the final verdict! I really had no idea what to expect but of course I was thrilled. Barely anyone knew I had applied so I got to explain everything all at once, including the peculiar world of semiotics. The accreditation felt great and connecting with Space Doctors was very exciting.

What has been happening to you since then? Give us some highlights?

Soon after, I started freelancing for Space Doctors doing US cultural insight. My first project was on the symbolism of light in American culture and I got really into it. I continued writing a monthly art review for THE magazine in Santa Fe, wrote for several other national publications, exhibited my own artwork, and traveled a bunch. Now I am at Space Doctors full time.

Would you recommend applied brand semiotics & cultural insight as a career option?

Absolutely! It’s an expanding field with tons of room for growth, creativity, and thoughtful innovation.

What do you foresee for yourself 5 years from now?

Only time will tell. 😉 Hopefully still involved with Space Doctors and living fabulously.

How do you think the world that cultural semioticians are looking at will have changed by then?

Cultural semioticians will be the norm: the leaders of marketing in a continually visual world. “A Sign in Space” from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is both a harbinger and just the beginning—a very juicy creation story.

 

© Hannah Hoel 2015

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Sound & Music Semiotics

Monday, July 6th, 2015

I am embarking on a large project on the semiotics of sound and music. I have been commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau in a project ran by Push Research to create an audio mood board of brand words. As I do so, something has occurred to me about the way music and sound is packaged. Sampling culture in electronic music has enabled packets of affective scripting to be condensed into breaks – this is arguably why hip-hop production has had such an influence, because the crunching beats, moody baselines and scathing guitar riffs are salient but they are also deftly combined with richly daubed musical leitmotifs often conveying exultant triumphalism or a sort of hectoring anguish.

Maximalism

“Maximalism” is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations. In terms of design, it is the opposite of minimalism and the famous Bauhaus Manifesto that pronounced ornamentation a crime and that exalted pared back parsimony. Maximalism in interior design is associated with unusual juxtapositions, opulent shapes, and a greater association with the baroque than with the classical. The irony now of course is that musically we live in a time of both minimalism and maximalism. Philip Glass and his ilk having had a huge influence on ambient music and on advertising too. But what is maximalism? A good example would be the TRON Legacy soundtrack composed by Daft Punk composed in 2009 which combines a full orchestra with synth and drone samples for a hybrid classical trance house soundscape.

Is the definition given by this reviewer in Pitchfork magazine: “the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty.” For me, the exemplars would include artists such as Rustie and Hudson Mohawke and potentially artists such as Black Moth Rainbow and Genghis Tron in its more thrash metal iterations. In classical or romantic music you would associate it with Mahler and Beethoven, lush, bombastic, majestic symphonies. And perhaps even a Richard Strauss.

Synths and the potential for layering music in production means that lushness of music can be continually added to, like thickening the fibrousness of palms in a jungle by continually adding new threads to the fibre. Music production software packages like Logic allows us to create a new track at whim.

In hip-hop too, much production favours the use of heavy strings, synths and a wall of sound, designed to heighten the tension, sense of alienation or odds. Certainly when we compare it to the stripped down beats of the mid 1980s.

This surfeit of semiotic resources, may not be a bad thing; not an accursed share but I do think it’s popularity and catchiness to the ear does owe something to the notion of Supernormal Stimuli. This is the theory stemming from the work of ethnologist Tingerben as developed by cognitive scientists.

Maximalism is the musical equivalent of a sherbet fountain, a mouthful of Cheesy Wotsits (that’s a rather arcane UK reference) or a vast arcade of instantly viewable porn MPGs or a chromophiliac colour monkey on LSD.

Maximalism has also been called Purple to describe just these synaesthesic qualities of the music – the music is so luscious you can almost cuddle it.

Physiologically, we are easily habituated to get accustomed to a threshold of stimulation and pleasure and the threshold can be permanently recalibrated by continued over stimulation our pleasure centres can be easily overwhelmed and this is arguably what much music does.  Our dopamine, serotonin and opioids.

What culturally does it mean? Is this just about the human predilection for both possibility and excess in music production (simply because we CAN do it, we SHOULD), is it just a function of the UK’s fecund underground urban music scene, or is it somehow connected to a deeper chord of ideological note? Well, Slavoj Zizek indicated in Living in the End Times the notion of neo-liberalist capitalism built on eradicating the superego.  So totalitarian injunctions against transgression have been replaced by a tyranny of permissiveness, the injunction to enjoy, consume, acquire become normative. To be hedonistic with a hedge fund spunking money created in a casino and to blow it on cocaine, crystal meth or prostitutes; go on a spree, a binge, a bender is encouraged. Frugality in consumption and to renounce is to be a pariah or at least enemy of consumerist capitalism. Isn’t Maximalism in music then an anthem for a mythical ideology? In prodigal times celebrated by those who have and craved by those who don’t.

For me the apotheosis of maximalism is Hudson Mohawke’s Fuse. Listen here:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkWmB9NIg4U

For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:

 http://www.dummymag.com/features/the-dummy-guide-to-purple

© Chris Arning 2015

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Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  In this context, post-communist Bulgaria met the date with a brand new generation blind to the past, as well as with an economy and society connected with the Western world more than ever before. A reputable sociological agency (Alfa Research Ltd, Nov. 2014), however, published a report that aroused the spirits.  It showed that more than 50% of the sample expressed a clear nostalgia for the ‘old times’, caused mostly by being tired of waiting for some ‘better future’ which never happens.

Taking a look back at the history, the first elections after the changes – those in mid-1990 – were won by the Bulgarian socialists, the nearest heirs of the former communist party. That made Bulgaria the only country among the others from the former socialist block giving the power to the same body of politicians as before November 1989. Moreover, it revealed that obviously the ordinary people had not been prepared for these significant changes, as had happened in most other central European countries, either in terms of institutions or everyday life.  People tried to maintain the status quo probably because they didn’t know anything else as a political program at that time, except for some vague idea of privatised economy – and the future seemed too unclear.

The data in the report also demonstrated that a positive attitude towards the former communist leader, previously an object of comedy and of fear, increased threefold between 1991 and 2014. The sectors showing remarkable decline during the transition period were health, education, and security systems as well as the economy in general. Only the freedom of the media and infrastructure improvements were perceived as positive outcomes of the new political and economic direction. Generally speaking, exactly half of the respondents, both from the left and the right wings of the political spectrum, considered the transition period so far as unsuccessful.

All the findings in the report in question were more than curious and in cultural perspective it seemed useful to put Lotmanian semiotics into action (also known as the concept of the semiosphere) to try to reveal how the former socio-economic regime in Bulgaria and the way of living attached to it are presented in the cultural landscape of today. In brief, leading principles of the model include the dynamics within the system which bring about asymmetry and some kind of a constant (collective) memory play. Its main elements are the core of the dominant cultural paradigm (grammar) and periphery (or the sum of weaker, subordinate fields in the cultural system). Since in the first decade of post-socialism no new strong ideological center appeared and the logical outcomes were were the disunion in local culture (values, heroes, goals, aesthetics, etc.) and a constant collision between the peripheral zones, on the one hand, and a need to re-read the near past on the other. At the same time the boundary (i.e. borders of the semiosphere) was too permeable, and  thus it supported not one new core formation but, rather, several different potential formations – which rendered the system as a whole unstable.

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

Front page of Communist party newspaper, from late 1979, woven into urban lifestyle bag.

Nowadays the set of sign systems created within Bulgarian socialism – especially in its late period – lives a new life in various forms, in various places, bearing some new meanings which represent it as a semi-imaginary/semi-real cultural construction. The complex and simultaneously obscure system of meanings and influences of this heritage could be ‘read’ in different pop-cultural visual, musical, architectural and verbal texts – literature, music, films and even bars/restaurants. The elders may perceive the pop-cultural referencing of socialism as offensive and partial, while the youngsters have highly mediated impressions of it. In their eyes it is a set of texts which seem more like a mosaic resulting in a form of fairy-tale of how the anachronistic evil got beaten by the progressive part of the people and the logic of freedom of choice, speech and consumption took over.

Alongside some retrospective commentary web-sites (for instance http://socbg.com/) in the capital Sofia recently have popped up places like rakia bar Raketa” (=Rocket), its  interior stocked with emblematic products from socialist every day life (even a vacuum clearer) and the Museum of socialistic art, which collected political signs, small monuments and other propaganda artifacts. In this perspective socialism may be seen as a good business/marketing tool, recycling material culture from that time – which may still be sourced relatively easily which is partly why it can connote authenticity) in a harmless and strongly contextualized ambience (see the illustration). The past is displayed as stripped back to essentials.

Eventually, some paradoxes do become apparent in the social-cultural mix. Parts of the population do not want to remember Socialism at all, while a lot of people want it back, even if not exactly in its previous reality. But for those who barely knew it, socialism comes back via its material and commercial face (we could add here T-shirts with signs such as ‘USSR’ and ‘KGB’ on them as well).

This case is an example of how old cultural texts can come back re-coded (from the periphery) and demonstrates how tricky the culture, in terms of ‘common memory’, actually is.  Culture, just like its non-semiotic opposition – Nature, does not support empty spaces, except for perhaps some some thinner zones from time to time. When certain myths disappear they should be replaced, otherwise history come back through a boomerang effect in different and very often crooked forms.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

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Linguistic localization of cross cultural foods

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

In an October 10th BBC article about the artist Alex Chinneck, the writer refers to an art piece as being located in a “London Piazza”.  The sentence gave me some pause, largely because I agree with the sentiment of the American author Alfred Bester when he said “for me, there are no synonyms”.  What was it about the place mentioned in the BBC article that makes it a piazza, and not a square?  In turn, how would one differentiate a square from a plaza?  That word was so long ago reappropriated into the English language that it appears all but divorced from its original Spanish roots..

But this isn’t mere nit-picking of writers and their euphemistic language.  Over the past decade or so the United States has inserted two other words into its collective lexicon; Paninis and Gelato.  Here there is room for even larger reflection; for these two words do have rough equivalents (or perhaps we can simply say synonyms) in the English language.  Namely, Gelato had for many years prior been called Ice Cream, while Panini had for likely as long been called sandwiches.  But ask anyone on the street and they will passionately proselytize that the one thing is not like the other.  Gelato, people will claim, is as separate a product from Ice Cream as Paninis are from sandwiches, and thus a distinction is necessary.  The inverse does not always occur.  Italian tourists visiting the US, speaking among themselves in Italian, would feel no need to code-switch into English if they stopped off for some ice cream.  For them, the product they purchased in the US is merely a regional variant of what they know from back in Italy, and no real distinction needs to be made.  And this begs the questions of where such distinctions, if necessary at all, come from.

Panini

One of these things is not like the others: tramezzini (top), porchetta panini (middle), American Panini (bottom).

The biggest problem with this seems to be from confusing a very generic term for a very specific one.  In Italian the noun gelato takes its name from the adjective for frozen, from the past participle of the verb gelare, and refers to any variety or the snack anglophones would call ice cream.  To say, as certain proselytizers in other parts of the world might, that to be considered gelato the product must stand to the rigor of being organic, or made with whole milk, or churned at a certain speed or at certain temperatures, is in a respect denying the monumental variation of the product you find in Italy itself.

Most products do not going under the incredible rigor of control that pharmaceuticals suffer from, where if something is to be called Aspirin it must have certain properties in certain quantities, or you will not be allowed to market it as such.  Instead, as with any other product going under any other generic label, you find a massive variety from seller to seller.  Were one to go from place to place in Italy, stopping for gelato at every occasion (recalling that the term not only refers to the gelato of the gelaterie, but as well the prepackaged ones sold in bars and super-markets ), one could create a periodic table of sorts from the varieties encountered; some places would sell creamier products while others might sell a more watery product (which works better for certain fruit flavors). Some would strive for the use of fresh ingredients while other would use chemical flavorings (the often taught trick is to look at the color of banana ice cream – bright yellow if made artificially and dull grey if made fresh), and some would experiment with flavors and combinations while others would rest with the tried and true.

On completion of this trail of type two diabetes, one would come to see just how far this umbrella term can stretch.  But a last point to consider with the ice cream/gelato distinction is that this said same distinction exists in other places as well.  A walk down the frozen aisle of a US supermarket will yield a cornucopia of products, no two exactly alike.  A look to the packaging alone will illustrate many of the same distinctions mentioned previously; here one makes mention of being creamier than the cousin it shares a shelf with, there another makes mention of how this one is slow-churned, elsewhere the product made from fair trade and organic cocoa beans stands proudly along with its exorbitant price tag.

Gelato then, is something of a paradox.  While the name seems not to refer to anything that needs to be differentiated from ice cream, applying the label is not in any way false, it is simply replacing one vague signifier for another.  Certainly, the makers and marketers of gelato all over the US do much to add certain signifiers of Italianness, and many of the already ingrained preconceived notions of what ‘gelato is’, to the product – but as far as claims of legitimacy are concerned they could just as well not.

The term Panini[i] is the plural of the Italian word panino, being itself the diminutive form of the word pane, meaning bread.  Even in Italy the terms panino and panini have come to mean refer to sandwich and sandwiches, though both the Italian words have retained their residual meaning of ‘small bread’.  And just as we found with Ice Cream/Gelato, both sandwich and panino are rather vast umbrella terms.  The hiccup comes when considering the new word Panini, which does not function as an umbrella term in the English language but refers specifically to a determined variety of sandwich heated with a sandwich press, and filled with certain meat (usually salami, ham and mortadella) as well as cheese and vegetables.  This distinction is of course non-existent with the Italian counterpart; panini may be heated or not, pressed or not, and can in fact be plain pieces of small bread.

There is then a distinction between the ice cream/gelato case and the sandwich/panino/Panini case; and that is that the Panini is more rigidly defined.  The confusion here can be immense, though with the right mindset playful; a Rueben, a Cuban, a burger and a BLT are all sandwiches by American classification, panini by Italian classifications, but not ever Panini (and no one has any idea where a hotdog would fit into any of this).  Not everything that would be called a panino in Italy would be called a Panini in the United States, though everything called a Panini in the United States would be called a panino in Italy.

Gelato, as sold in the US, as well as Panini, exists mostly as marketing terms.  An ambitious and industrious individual, nostalgically fuelled by positive experience overseas, attempted to recreate what he considered to be the superior products he experienced there.  But to survive in an already competitive market of sandwiches and ice cream, a powerful distinction had to be made.  If one considers just how many places now sell gelato and Panini, it becomes clear just how successful this campaign has been.


[i] The appropriation of the term Panino into the English language has unfortunately created a lexical confusion that makes it difficult to discuss without a certain uncluttering of terms first.  The Italian terms are panino (singular diminutive of bread) and panini (plural diminutive of bread), while the English terms are Panini (singular) and paninis (plural).  For the purposes of distinguishing the plural Italian term from the singular English, in the above paragraph the English term is always capitalized.  

© Matthew Campanella 2014

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Apple’s Swift Icon

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Swift Semiotic Observations on Apple’s Swift Icon

A few days ago, Apple unveiled their new language for Xcode programmers, which is called ‘Swift’ and which comes with the following graphic visualization:

swift-larger-image

A friend of mine was surprised at the angle of the swift having been well-briefed on the semiotic implications of angle and trajectory in Western culture iconography, e.g. they generally transverse from left to right in accordance with Western reading conventions, and that ‘down’ is usually bad to the same degree that ‘up’ is usually good . . .which generally makes the upper right-hand corner the aspirational destination for most icons and logos.

But not this time.

Some semiotic observations on Apple’s icon for the new swift:

1. The downward angle of descent is important: by showing the swift moving to the bottom right, and not straight down, the meaning changes from dropping dead to controlled descent. There’s intent with that angle.

2. What are birds often doing when they’re descending with control at speed? Hunting: through this observation, the image becomes an expression of energy, aggression (strongly mitigated by the colours and the fact that it’s only a bird), confidence, and decisiveness.

3. The downward trajectory is showing the icon literally coming down to earth; perhaps being ‘down to earth’ is a desirable or even aspirational brand attribute for Apple software (especially since it’s not open-source, and it often takes criticism about this in comparison to Android)

4. Consider the opposite angle – if we dip into Greimas’ semiotic square for a moment – which would show the swift going to the upper right corner: while this is typically the direction that all positive, non-tragedy, Western-orientation narratives take, it also carries some uncertainty: by going into the clear open blue sky, where is the swift going? It would have no destination, it would seem aimless, directionless. The open sky is freedom but also chaos and uncertainty. The current downwards direction is grounded, focused, tangible, practical — everything you might look for in programming language. Some narrative systems do better with clearly delineated borders, and my guess is that programming language is one of them (make no mistake: I don’t pretend to know anything about computer programming languages).

5. Orange is cool: it’s fresh, clean, exciting, young, simple, energetic, and positive. It’s quickly becoming the dominant brand colour-de-jour . . .

6. White is also cool, and of course very Apple – they got the chromatology absolutely on-trend, absolutely emergent.

7. Knowing it’s a swift is also key: of all birds, it’s a swift. There’s such a strong, positive association with that word! Swifts are swift: small, nimble, flexible . . . Wikipedia calls them “the most aerial of birds” which is just poetry.

8. And there’s a old-school elegance to ‘swift’ that you can’t find in ‘fast’, and an accessibility of personality that you can’t find in ‘falcon’ (everybody knows falcons are arrogant, but you could sit and have a beer with a swift – if you could keep up).

9. I also feel a degree of decisiveness and accuracy in ‘swift’ that I don’t feel in ‘fast’. For whatever reason, I think of ‘fast’ as courting association with ‘out of control’ (the faster you go, the less control you have?) but ‘swift’ is always in control: there’s almost a Biblical power in the idea of swiftness, a perfectly balanced combination of power, accuracy, determination, and confidence. Control is a desirable connotation for programming language, and from what little I understand of how the Swift language compares to Objective-C (cough), it’s an apt description of how it’s supposed to work.

10. Finally, the swift also connotes lighting-fast reflexes (they eat flying insects while flying at up to 106 miles-per-hour / 169 km/hour: they’re fast). That’s got ‘computer technology’ written all over it.

Nicely played, Apple . . .

© Charles Leech 2014

 

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Ribbon of Victory

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Newspapers around the world today (9th May 2014) feature images of the Russian military at yesterday’s Victory Day parades displaying prominently, among other insignia, an orange and black ribbon on their tunics. This piece by Marina Simakova explains the historical and acute current significance of this symbol. (Editors)

St George ribbon – a piece of striped orange-black cloth – for many years has been a Russian symbol of military heroism. This started long ago at the end of the 18th century when The Order of St George, the highest military award, was established, and signified by the ribbon around the hero’s neck.   Later on it was attached to different kinds of awards named in honor of  St George, every time signifying bravery and courage. It is considered that the orange stripes symbolize flames of fire, while the black ones remind us of gun smoke.

In May 2005 the orange-black ribbon could be noticed on the streets in the hands of volunteers for the first time. They gave it free to anyone, who wanted to demonstrate that they honour memory of  World War II and want to express their respect for Russian veterans. The latter responded very positively to the idea of symbolically commemorating victory over the German invaders and the ribbon gained its extensive popularity across the country.  Every year a month or so before victory day (May 9th) thousands of ribbons have been distributed. People fix them on cars, bags, or jackets – or simply wore them around the wrist or in their hair.

In 2010 orange-black ribbons were sent to Russian embassies abroad and in 2011 a giant kite made of St George ribbon fabric was sent flying in the May sky as part of a flashmob event. However, despite its success, the meaning of St George ribbon is ambivalent, and there are people who choose not to wear it.  From the very beginning they found it to be undesirably ostentatious and a sign more of patriotic bravado than true homage to the victory or gratitude to the soldiers.  The was also a concern about the symbol being, on the one hand, commercialized, and on the other, actively used in ideological work of the state. What happened next is even more worrying.

GeorgeRibbonPacks

In December 2013, during the protests in Ukraine, the ribbon was used by pro-Russian activists and counter-revolutionary forces to differentiate themselves from others. This might be regarded as expressing a certain logic: in the period of World War II Russia and Ukraine still were united in one country, and its soldiers fought on the front line together. But this logic doesn’t consider the fact that the ribbon of St George is a shared symbol, a sort of mobile war memorial.  It constitutes inclusive collective memory and belongs to all who want to express their solidarity. Using the ribbon as a point of difference in a political standoff is simply unjust. The ribbon as an object, a mere thing, becomes an attribute of segregation and the ribbon as a symbolic figure extends its meaning. Lately on the territory of both Russia and Ukraine the ribbon has acquired rather fresh but often polarizing and negative connotations – from Slavic brotherhood to collaborationism, from tradition to reactionary and imperialistic views. Ukrainian nationalists invented a humiliating nickname for a ribbon – ‘coloradie’ and for those who wear it – ‘colorados’, as the orange-black color mix reminds them of a Colorado potato beetle.

GB_Manicure_Ad[1] copy

This example shows that once the sign becomes subject to chaotic exploitation, the gap between the signifier and the signified is filled in with contradictions, which may lead to alienation of the initial sense. And now, when the ribbon’s meaning is so procurable, it is of course, regrettably, getting heavily commercialized, while the effect of such marketing is rather unpredictable.

© Marina Simakova 2014

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Brands & the Myth of the Family

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Many consumer brands these days create a human interest angle related to their brands that they think people will identify with. They give their products a character and a context that mirrors real life, and they expect that this identification will result, ultimately, in increased sales.

Flora, the margarine brand owned by Unilever, has come up with the Flora Mum, Tiffany Jones, who “lives in Suffolk with her husband Phil and two daughters Rosie (12) and Hannah (11).” Apparently, Tiff (as she’s called on the Flora website) loves festivals and Zumba and once ran a farmers market. She likes to cook everything from scratch, too.

The Flora Mum

This branding extends from the advertising campaigns and the product website, to the product itself. If you open a tub of Flora you’ll find a member of the family printed on the foil lid, with a caption about their daily life. My personal favourite is the picture of Rosie with the caption “My dad says he’s a great cook because he makes great cheese sandwiches. My mum says that’s not cooking.”

The very model of a modern family, then. Something the majority of consumers can relate to.

Or perhaps not.

According to recent research by the sociologist Sacha Roseneil, the trend for people living outside of the traditional family structure has almost doubled in the last thirty years, with the number of adults living in non-coupled households increasing from 19% in 1979 to 29% in 2004. Meanwhile, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in 2010, the number of child-free women over the age of forty has doubled, from 1 in 10 in 1990 to 1 in 5 in 2010.

As women’s roles are redefined in society, and as motherhood increasingly become a choice rather than an inevitability, the idea of a family is changing. Access to safe and reliable contraception has combined with increased economic independence and employment and educational opportunities to give women options that they have never had before. And it seems that many of them are grasping them with both hands.

Growing acceptance of homosexuality and the legalisation of gay marriage in countries all around the world has also redefined what it means to be in a couple. The emphasis on heterosexual couples and heterosexual reproduction is no longer the gold standard. Instead, people are increasingly able to organise their personal lives in ways that suit them, rather than fitting into a one-size-fits-all model.

For all of these reasons, we can see a definite trend away from family life as it is usually understood, with mum and dad and the kids (ideally two) becoming less and less real for many people living in the UK today.

That said, whether the traditional family ever existed in the first place is debateable. Professor Pat Thane, from Kings College London, is a family historian who has discovered that the long-lasting marriages and the nuclear families of the 1950s and 1960s were actually anomalies. Instead, throughout history, single parent families and unmarried parents were more likely to be the norm. It is possible that we are just reverting to what we always had, with what we think of as “traditional” actually being a blip that is slowly fading from view.

Which brings us back to Flora. And indeed other brands too. Cars, supermarkets, food products, holidays, and lots of other consumer goods are marketed on the back of the traditional family. But why? Given that the traditional family is becoming increasingly alien to UK consumers, and given that it probably never really existed in the first place, why are brands continuing to use this myth as a strategy? It may have worked up until the 1990s, when people still had a memory of the halcyon days of family life, but now? In the 21st Century?

Brands would do much better to think of the diversity and the plurality of relationships. They need to think about how people are organising their lives in dozens of different ways, and in particular how the role of women has been  transformed beyond all recognition in the last thirty years. Instead of trying to squeeze consumers into a demographic that exists only in people’s imagination, they should think about working with variety instead.

One brand that has embraced this idea is Colmans. Their current advert for cook-in sauces shows a single dad making shepherds pie for his teenage daughter, who’s upset because she’s just had an argument with her boyfriend. It’s a far cry from the Flora idea that men can only make cheese sandwiches, to the despair of the women in their lives, but it’s all the more appealing for that.

Colmans stills.009_0

Successful advertising tells us what we already know. Familiarity sells. If the world has changed, and traditional families no longer exist, then brands need to reflect this. Sticking to the mythology of a fairytale family will, eventually, only alienate consumers – and I’m sure that’s not what brands would want from their strategy, or what consumers want from their brands.

© Alison Bancroft 2014

 

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Diversity Act IV

Friday, April 4th, 2014

“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at at them
And fishermen hold flowers”

(Bob Dylan, Desolation Row)

My three earlier Semionaut posts on Diversity were preparatory work for an article on “Diversity, Culture and Semiotics” subsequently published in the online version of ESOMAR’s Research World journal, which I link here as part 4.

ActIV.1

That piece includes a number of case studies first published in articles written with Michael Harvey, Hamsini Shivakumar, Katja Maggio-Muller and Marina Anderson and referenced in the bibliography. It also gave me the opportunity to acknowledge two decades of inspiration working in proximity to Steve Seth, who I first met at what was then known as The Added Value Company where we shared an office resembling a converted broom cupboard (‘converted’ in this instance being something of an exaggeration). My draft referred to Steve as ‘il miglior fabbro’, T.S. Eliot’s dedication to Ezra Pound in The Waste Land. I removed this in case anyone took my literary pretentiousness at face value rather than ironically.  Also because mentioning the anti-Semite Eliot and fascist Pound in a paper on diversity would be a bit like mentioning Baudelaire in the context of wellness-related consumer lifestyles or Toulouse Lautrec in relation to basketball.

Please don’t take that last remark as being in any way heightist – there is no such intention behind it. The only slight prejudice I’m feeling today (writing this in Spring at a cafe in Montmartre) is against the marginally shabby yet vaguely dandified French male of a certain age, the would-be flâneur, who still looks as if he left the house this morning dressed by a doting but mildly inebriated mother.  His authentically bohemian equivalent in Prague, with leather hat, waistcoat and pony tail, looks infinitely more robust and credible. You know what I’m talking about.

We already have some fascinating inputs for the impending co-created Act V of this sequence which will inspire a paper at the Shanghai Semiofest in May 2014.  Please keep them coming by email to editorial@semionaut.net  Here again is the briefing.

ActIV.2

The acknowledgment I finally arrived at for Steve Seth was friend in diversity and true global soul – The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer, still being one of the best introductions I know to the interplay of human commonality and all sorts of diversity today.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

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Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

I recently had occasion to interact closely with a number of wholesalers and retailers in textiles, a very old and established trade with business relationships going back three generations between textile mills and retailers.  I then used a semiotic perspective to analyse some of the discussions that had taken place with them on the phenomenon of knowingly selling fakes from their stores to their customers.

Trinary

 

 

I started by looking into the context of everyday business operations in India.  While there are laws, rules and regulations, actual business practice and everyday business ethics are more governed by social regulation.  By social regulation, I refer to the voice of social and community authority, viz, elders and the collective consensus on an issue as  to its ethical rightness or virtue.  Social regulation works through evoking three kinds of fears – divine retribution when the Gods are displeased, offending and hurting elders and thus inviting their wrath/ punishment and finally, offending the community, resulting in expulsion and exile.

Working every day within the context of social regulation, every businessman sees three levels of behaviors and practices in any given moment as being available to him.  These may alternatively be seen as three paths on which he can walk.  At the top one path is the path of virtue – virtue is also strongly linked to ideas of purity of intent/motive and non-self interested action taken vis-à-vis the other party involved in the deal.  While this is the zone typically assigned to saints and mystics, even business people are capable of acting at this level.  Those who do so command a huge level of spiritual power and moral authority over their fellow business-people.  For the sake of alliterative labeling, we can call this the zone or path of purity.

At the next level or second path is the zone/path of pragmatism and permission.   This route evolves through a collective consensus among the members of the local community and it refers to the extent of permissible deviation from the path of virtue.  In the case of fakes, it could be the extent of stock that retailers would carry of fabrics with a fake ‘Made in Italy’ label that are actually manufactured in China or elsewhere.  When they sell this stock, they knowingly mislead the customer that they are selling them fabric that they present as being genuinely made in Italy, when it is not.  Or it could be to do with the extent of dilution of a quality standard in manufacture.  As long as they stay within the ‘permissible’ range as understood through collective consensus, they have safety in numbers and they know their fellow business people will not lose respect for them.  Also, they are not compromising their longer term agenda or reputation as good people to do business with – either among customers or among the business community.

At the bottom the third path is the zone of villainy.  Acting from this zone or walking on this path will surely invite curses (gaalis in colloquial Hindi) and calumny from fellow business people.  Actions in this zone would include resorting to out and out cheating, violence, threats, treachery, blackmail, reneging on agreements (not necessarily the contract in its legal details) as well as reneging on financial dues and settlements.  When a business man acts from this zone, he has either compromised his ethics beyond repair or is risking doing so.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, “Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management” also makes reference to this simultaneous seeing of three levels of action choices.  He describes the three levels as Bhagawan, Deva and Asura.  Asura (which loosely translates as a demon) signifies actions that arise from the zone of villainy.  Deva (which loosely translates as a B-level God) indicates actions arise from the zone of awareness.  Bhagawan (which loosely translates as a truly Divine being) signifies actions that arise from the zone of a higher spiritual being.  Bhagawan actions are those that are worthy of emulation and worship.

The Indian Eye often sees presence and absence in objects, entities and phenomena not just in terms of dualities or binaries but as ‘trinaries’.  They could be three columns (parallel vertical paths to walk on) or three levels (parallel horizontal paths to climb up from level to level).  The eye spots the co-existence of A, B and C as three distinct possibilities in the same realm.  So, in the realm of ethics, there is the co-existence of God-like, Human and Demonic behaviors.  In other cases, the hybrid of A & B is seen as a distinct path in itself.  For example people may be solo Christians, solo Hindus and hybrids – also worship in Churches while following a specific Hindu God or a Sufi Saint.  They can be strict vegetarians, strict non-vegetarians and hybrids – vegetarians at home while being meat-eating outside the home.  There are combinations that are valued as a valid third element e.g. sweet-sour, bitter-sweet.  There is a valid space for ambiguity, the grey zone, the ‘third-way’, the ‘nuances and shades’.  The eye sees all three as valid vs. seeing the third as a negotiated compromise or a dialectic synthesis of hard oppositions, viz operating from a binary vision?

Does this simultaneous ‘trinary’ vision call for the development of additional tools of semiotic analysis specifically applicable to some forms of categorization in Indian culture?  Looking beyond Indian culture to global culture, the growth of the internet, social media, gaming and digital interfaces are blurring the lines between real and virtual and creating a third zone that exists simultaneously.  The development of robotics and artificial intelligence is doing something similar to the human and machine binary.   Has the time then come for a new semiotics of the ‘trinary’?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

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Codes of Crimea

Monday, March 10th, 2014

 

GEO-SEMIOTICS – THE CODES OF CRIMEA

8th March 2014. Crimea, an amazingly beautiful peninsula in the Southern part of Ukraine, has become the arena of a big international conflict. Due to its advantageous geographical location, Crimea has always been a subject of interest for neighbouring countries. A strategically important spot for Russia, where its Black Sea fleet is based, and a fully legitimate land of the sovereign Ukraine, torn either by revolution or by civil war, Crimea once again is the focus of the controversy and political tension.  But what does it feel like in the region? What are the particular codes of the Crimean geo-cultural identity?

Crimea5

Pebble memoirs

Although Crimea offers both sandy and pebble beaches, the latter prevail. On thousands of postcards, typical Crimean round pebbles look beautiful, but in reality they are harsh and slippery. Thanks to the poor infrastructure, in most places sun loungers are not available, which leaves room for people who are happy to lie down on their towels. Lying on the pebble surface feels somewhat like a medical procedure, and getting into the water is an adventure and, let’s face it, painful. But humans can get used to anything, and kids easily and quickly get used to the pebbles.  A set of small pebbles or a big pebble with a perfectly round shape became one of the memories that generations of kids took with them from summer vacations in Crimea. Almost anyone who has grown up in Russia or Ukraine has a Crimean pebble hidden somewhere deep in a drawer. It’s not just an alternative to a white-pinky sea shell. A pebble always acts as a reminder of comfort compromised for the seaside experience – and its round shape embodies our passion for perfection.

Swallow’s Nest

According to a famous Russian poem, the swallow is supposed to bring spring in her beak. Who wouldn’t yearn to see the swallow’s home in this case?  If someone says he knows where the swallow’s nest is, he must have definitely visited Crimea. In fact, Swallow’s Nest is a romantic castle on the edge of the cape, built for a Russian entrepreneur in homage to German medieval tradition more than a century ago. Unlike most European countries, neither Russia, nor Ukraine has castles to display. So, for the majority of kids from the former Soviet Union, the Swallow’s Nest was the first live example of a castle they came across. In many cases it remained the only one they saw in their lives. Though a derivative architectural work it became a legendary and poetic symbol of Crimea.

Soviet artifacts

Despite the 30 years that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea remains a truly Soviet place.  Here and there you may see shabby residences of former communist party leaders that still look quite epic. In any town you can still find numerous authentic canteens that keep the spirit of the workers’ solidarity. Rattling trolley buses will take you

Crimea4

around the cities if you get a yellowish ticket issued on the paper from old Soviet stock. You can also hire an unofficial taxi for a roller coaster experience on the serpentine mountain road, while enjoying breathtaking views through the windows of your Volga car. Check in one of the simple guest houses: it is very likely that it has worn wine red curtains and dusty crystal lamps in the hall – original and authentic examples of Soviet luxury.

Life in the wild

Going to Crimea will be especially cost effective if you take your home with you. Hidden beaches between the Crimean mountains are full of camping sites. Adventurers and hikers, archaeologists, young families and students live there in tents like hippie communities in 60s. They eat canned food, swim naked and playing guitars into the night, gathering around a fire.  There’re dozens of such spots with no regulations, so people are able to enjoy complete freedom. Of course, tourists arrive in boats or discover the terrain on foot so the campers aren’t allowed a complete Crusoe existence.  But this is something these children of nature can easily tolerate.

Diversity in peace

Crimea is a diverse place. In some places it looks local and private, ready to hide you in its narrow mountain tracks or small town back alleys alleys. In other places the landscape is one of towering peaks and green plateaus. Here intimacy meets grandeur. But what makes Crimea most diverse is its multicultural feeling.  This region has always had an extremely heterogeneous population, speaking various languages and following different religious traditions. All nations nearby have kept an eye on their own sacred places and historical sites, sharing these highlands and coastlines. Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Belarusian, Jews, Moldavians, Azerbaijanis and Gipsies exist side by side, living in peace. Sometimes the pristine Black Sea water seems to be the best thing for cooling down when it comes to a conflict.

Text © Marina Simakova 2014

Photographs © Olga Zeveleva 2014 – with thanks

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Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

Effective cross-cultural semiotic analysis ought to reflect the diversity of cultures.  It is now accepted even among psychologists that there is no universal and standardized human psychology, rather individual and group psychology is itself hugely influenced by culture.  The American psycho-analyst Alan Roland wrote about his experiences and theorized a different model of the self for his Indian and Japanese patients vis-à-vis his American patients.  Richard Nisbett in his book, the Geography of Thought provides ‘research study-based’ evidence of the differences in perception between Americans and Chinese.  And Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist draws attention to the differences between the core belief systems underpinning Western, Chinese and Indian thought.

How might this perspective be applied to developing new semiotic tools for India/other Asian cultures?

One of the key principles of the semiotic analysis of meaning is the idea of difference and how that difference is dealt with, to create meaning.  The distinctions of ‘is” vs. “is not” and “oppositions and contradictions” is a key part of the way semioticians analyze concepts and ideas to arrive at territories of meaning.

However, there is another way to look at binaries and that is through the lens of presence-absence for a sense of completion of meaning.  The central idea here is of “completion” that goes with pairs of inter-twined entities.  One cannot exist without the other.  Both must be viewed together for the meaning to result.  The separation of one from the other, distorts the meaning.  To understand the essence, they must be viewed and understood in the pair, so deeply are the concepts inter-woven and inter-twined.  The underlying cultural code here is not that of individuality or autonomy but of essential dependence and co-existence.  It arises from a relational definition of society and culture vs. a transactional and contractual definition of society and culture.  Separation would create a feeling of tremendous loss and desolation, not a celebration of individuality.

HS1

For e.g. in Hindi, there is a central idea of a “Jodi” or pair.  Jodis would be concepts such as husband-wife, father-mother, brother-sister, hero-villain, sidekick-hero, master-servant, politician-media (recent), food-drink (khana-peena), hardware-software etc.   The central premise can be extended to a range of entities.  Is a city possible without citizens?  Can a movie Star be a Star without a multitude of fans?  Hindi pairs:  pati-patni, mata-pita, bhai-behen, raja-praja, guru-shishya.

Applying this thinking to defining category meanings would imply that even though the product categories that are bought and sold are objects, they should be viewed and understood by combining them inextricably with the users who have the closest relationship with the object.  To illustrate, cars are not cars without drivers (though new driverless high-tech cars are on the design table) and medicines are meaningless without doctors/healers/medicine men.  A semiotic study on the category meaning of cancer treatments would start by looking at cancer drugs and oncologists together or at doctor-cancer sufferer as the single and complete entity rather than separating the patient, the cancer, the doctor and the medicine into separate entities that are placed in varying individual positions with respect to one another.

Could the consideration of inter-twined pairs be a new tool added to the semiotic tool box for Indian and Asian markets?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

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Short List – Troy

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Editor’s note: In the version of this article originally submitted the two campaigns analysed were identified as being for the same environmental organisation, which was using the contrasting paradigms identified here. A request for permission to reproduce illustrations from the campaigns was declined by that organisation on the basis that these were off-brand and/or ghost campaigns. Another organisation now owns the copyright of one of the campaigns mentioned, which we reproduce here with permission. This updated version of the article replaces the specific organisation named in the original with the generic ‘environmental and wildlife organisations’. Our links, at the time of publication, still give access to the images on which the detailed analysis is based. The two paradigms identified are, of course, valid in spite of these editorial change which inevitably brings about some loss of precision. These paradigms are coincidentally also the focus of debate among academic biosemioticians currently. The Semionaut Award judging panel will base their final decision on the merits of all the short listed papers and will take the original fully illustrated version as their reference point for this one.

ENVIRONMENTAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS, HUMAN HUBRIS AND GLOBAL ETHICS

Humankind is currently confronted by global warming and mass species extinction, both of which are arguably exacerbated, if not directly caused, by human action. While humans may be the cause, all species, including humans, are at risk, and, in this way, all species are equal. Yet the way that environmental and wildlife organisations represent this issue in their various campaigns does not always suggest this is so. In some campaigns, the victim is a nonhuman species, while in others the victim is human. At the same time, the campaigns juxtapose the natural against the artificial or technological. Analysis of the semiotics employed by environmental organisations in their various advertising campaigns reveals there are two dualisms at work, namely human/nonhuman and natural/technological. These dualisms can operate to see humankind as the culprit of global warming and species extinction, such that they maintain human hubris as beyond nature. Alternatively, the dualisms can position humans as victims, knocking us off the branches of our evolutionary tree to bring us back down to earth.

Humankind as beyond nature

Several advertising campaigns represent humankind as both the cause and means of prevention of species extinction. Such campaigns include “Help protect the future of endangered species”  and “Before it’s too late” . These two campaigns allude to an imagined future in which natural animals have been replaced by artificial simulacra – cyborgs in one, origami in the other. While these campaigns suggest that technological replacements are inferior to the natural or real thing, these campaigns reaffirm the natural/technological dualism. Another campaign, “Our life at the cost of theirs?”, makes explicit this alignment of human and technology. Human interests are diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of nonhuman species, and the provocative campaign title is supported by artwork of metropolises that have the shape of animals.

In such advertising campaigns, it seems that technology and nature cannot exist in symbiosis and humankind’s alignment with the technological works to sever us from the natural world. Not only this, but the consequences of global warming and species extinction are kept at our arm’s length – it is not we who are at risk of extinction, but them. Thus, such campaigns also reaffirm the human/nonhuman dualism. In doing so, both the natural and nonhuman are represented as passive victims of humans and technology, and the call for action in these campaigns in dependent on seeing the nonhuman as objects to be valued, thus maintaining human hubris as above and beyond nature.

Humankind as part of nature

Panther

A second group of campaigns represent humankind as being part of nature and, thus, at risk from global warming and species extinction. One such campaign is “Preserve your world. Preserve yourself” which uses optical illusions to give a human face to forest scenes. While this face could be read as belonging to Mother Nature, the campaign slogan encourages the viewer to consider themselves, and thus humankind, within the natural setting. Another campaign, “Their extinction is ours as well,” further embeds humankind within nature. For this series of advertisements, naked humans pose in animal-like stances within a jungle setting. Yet a third campaign, “Stop climate change before it changes you” blends the human and the animal; the subject of the advertisement is a man whose head has morphed into that of a fish . Such campaigns challenge the human/animal dualism and reaffirm humankind’s animality and dependence on the natural world. Because of this, humans are positioned as the subject and belonging to nature. We are thus victims of global warming and at risk of extinction ourselves.

Gorilla

Unlike those campaigns that set humans apart from nature, these campaigns that embed humankind within nature move towards a more inclusive global ethics. While arguably the call for action appeals to humankind’s self-preservation, that these campaigns challenge the human/nonhuman dualism invites the viewer to reconsider humankind’s animality and our place within nature. Such campaigns encourage us to view nonhuman species as our kin, not objects of our affection that we should preserve for our own pleasure.

© Troy Potter 2014

 

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Short List – Taras

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Every day millions of people all around the world use railway transport. For many passengers taking a train is an everyday routine, since some simply commute day to day  to/from work, others must travel as a part of their job etc. However at the same time for many of us taking a train is perhaps not such an ordinary experience. Imagine a student on a train finally returning home after a semester of study abroad, or maybe grandparents paying a visit to their (grand)children in a far away megalopolis, or just a tourist who had to save money for a number of years in order to travel around Europe with hop-on hop-off rail pass. For all of them taking a train becomes THE travel experience – in some sense unusual & promising, for some perhaps even a bit nostalgic.

On the other side of the fence – in the world of rail companies – it is all about constant, sometimes even aggressive, competition for passengers. And such state of affairs is not surprising, because the rail operator success formula is relatively easy (and obviously not very unique) – bigger passenger flow brings higher profits. That is the reason why each and every rail company tries to search for the best ways and channels to communicate with their potential passengers, to persuade you and me to use their services.

 Language and Codes of Argumentation

If only a few decades ago railways had more or less monopolistic position in a niche of passenger logistics, nowadays they have to fight with aviation (especially low-cost airlines), bus companies and private auto transport which all, just like mushrooms after the rain, became widely spread over recent decades. As result the first line of combat is about the fight between trains and other modes of transportation. In this battlefield rail companies usually fight together, on a sort of joint front, while sharing a common discourse. Their language of argumentation gets constantly perfected and as of nowadays usually includes:

a) An argument of eco-friendliness. Trains being presented as more energy-efficient (per passenger) and polluting far less compared to airplanes and cars.  The slogan “go green – take a train” (or such like) can be found in the arsenal of almost all rail companies. Probably one of the best examples here is the EuroStar Group (running high-speed trains from London to Paris & Brussels), among the first heavily relying on environmental efficiency topics.

b) City-to-city easy access with no hassle. Historically train stations tend to be located in city centers, thus taking a train promises passenger departure and arrival to the city center, no need to travel to the distant airport, spend time for check-in, security checks and other air travel related nuisances. The overall practicality of choosing rail transport is widely stressed.

c) The promise of comfort. Traditionally train seats (and especially berths) tend to be more spacious and comfortable compared to bus or airplane seating. Train passengers also can always easily stroll around the carriage, stretch, visit the dining car etc.

d) Beyond just transportation. Rail companies tend to advertise scenic views from the train window as something totally different than clouds seen through plane windows or highways with cars passing by. Train passengers are often promised to expect spectacular scenery. Probably the most successful examples of such branding of train trip can be seen from Swiss private railways running touristic trains (Glacier Express, Bernina Express and the like). Rail journeys just for the sake of enjoying picturesque natural beauty.

e)     Old-fashioned charm. The globalized world is usually about speed and air travel, so rail operators came up with a sort of contrasting idea to sell – the train journey portrayed as something refreshingly traditional. The passenger is offered not just a ticket from destination A to destination B, but the experience of the journey. An experience like a trip taken from a movie script of the old film or a diary of someone who travelled on the late 19th century Orient Express.

 Branding Unique Experience

The general argumentation behind taking a train is obviously only a tip of an iceberg, basically a shared visible ‘flag’. While at the end it inevitably comes to promoting only your company or your train, and here examples and possibilities are definitely much more diverse.

NTV-NOLA070

http://www.flickr.com/photos/trenoitalo/6652720499/sizes/m/in/photostream/

For instance just last year Italy witnessed an arrival to the domestic market of the new private rail company Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV). One of the main shareholders in the company was well-known Luca di Montezemolo (Chairman of the Ferrari Company). NTV’s initial project was to introduce totally novel high-speed train service (brand ITALO) between major Italian cities and, obviously owing to the persona of di Montezemolo, the new trains received the nickname ‘Ferrari of the Railyards’. Keywords like ‘Ferrari train’ appeared in the reports of all the major media (CNN, Spiegel, The Guardian, Forbes etc.) describing the new rail service. Italo trains were almost instantly praised for the level of comfort and service never seen in Italy before. As result nowadays even ordinary passengers, and especially visitors from abroad, would refer to the NTV rail service as being associated with the Ferrari brand. And definitely in this case the reference to Ferrari is rather symbolic and brings along quite obvious connotations and meanings favorable for the company exploiting such branding. However the funniest thing in this story is that NTV-Italo trains actually have almost nothing to do with Ferrari (maybe besides the choice of color and the persona of di Montezemolo). They were produced by French transport corporation Alstom. But does it really matter if NTV managers can maintain the Ferrari connotations?

Red Arrow

http://periskop.livejournal.com/464165.html

Another case concerns a train from the other side of the European continent – USSR/Russia. Probably almost everybody who lived or traveled by rail in USSR/Russia will know about the famous Red Arrow train from Moscow to Leningrad/St.Petersburg. It is a case where one particular train became a brand and an easily recognizable symbol. For a start, all the carriages of the train historically were painted in a unique dark-red livery, plus every carriage has the name of the train written on the side, so that anybody who sees this train even from a distance will be able to recognize it  (a sort of Jakobson’s visual sign denoting a particular train). Secondly, the Red Arrow train has a rather symbolic train number – 001/002, in a way symbolizing importance (i.e. being the first) of rail connections between two Russian capitals. Thirdly, during the departure of the train a special song is played throughout the station, so it is not just about livery, color or number, but also about auditory signification – letting everybody know that it’s time for the departure of train #1.

There are dozens of examples from all over the world illustrating rail companies’ deliberate branding of some of their products (like a particular train or high-speed service), branding which in a way creates a recognizable symbol, a sort of assurance of the very special travel experience a passenger will get the minute he or she boards the train. So next time you plan to travel by train make sure you pay attention not just to your ticket and departure time, but to a ‘story behind your train.

© Taras Boyko

 

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Short List – Matthew

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

PLACES, COGNITION AND ADVERTS

If advertising were a singularly effective form of communication, opinions about products and services would be homogenous across the audiences that viewed the advert.  This does not seem to be the case; likely because there are forces (in the form of opinions) working outside/against those very adverts.  Advertising must constantly work to combat these outside forces in order to homogenize the opinions of the audiences it works on.  The place where we can vividly see this at work is in tourism advertising.  This is because it is in consideration of places that people, for better or worse, tend to have and hold a largely monotone opinion – a sort of synthesis of various opinions and stereotypes that one collects when exposed to information of that place.

Very often advertisers of place must combat this barrage of negative opinions.  We can imagine that in light of the recent knot of political circumstances the country has been in, it would be very hard for any marketer of place to create an effective campaign for Afghanistan, despite the fact that (surely!) the country must have a certain degree of natural beauty and charm to it.  Such a person would have to create an advertising campaign that in some respect could combat all the negative associations of that place; near ten years of war, a link to terrorism, a key component of the opium trade, internal strife, and very oppressive members of their society.  This extreme example very clearly illustrates the problem in marketing place, but what about a potential solution?

Italy has not in the recent years held the countries that formed Yugoslavia in highest regards.  It might be that the proximity allowed Italians to witness the worst of the eastern bloc without being in it, or it might be that the very same proximity brought many Yugoslavian immigrants to Italian shores.  How this came about is not terribly relevant; what is to the point is that Italians still associate some of the countries with that rather bleak period of their history.  It is sad to say, but to a certain extent the rather vivid memory of Tito and ethnic tension still lingers in the memory of many Italians.  Such opinions disregard how very much those countries have changed since 1991.  It is the responsibility of these countries and more specifically of the marketers of place responsible for the tourism therein, to attempt to change the opinions therein.

Fiume

Carnival at Rijeka, Croatia, spectators included

Let us for a moment consider just a few opening shots of a video that, although not geared specifically towards Italians, is still used to promote Croatia to an Italian audience.  The video is in fact a part of Croatia’s official Italian language tourism page.  The video begins in a rather straightforward manner; a few opening shots of the sea by which many tourists will arrive; the very same sea, we are shown through the images of people in seemingly traditional dresses working on boats, that seems important to a Croatian identity.  It is interesting to note the presence of a white and black stripped shirt; an object often associated with Venetian gondoliers.  We are soon shown the eagle’s eye view of the city, and from their we know we have arrived.  The next shot show a gate, presumably a city gate, opening to release a group of tourists.  It is at this scene where the video becomes rather interesting, for it continues to follow this group of tourists around as they explore Croatia.  This is a splitting from a normal stylistic point of tourism advertising.  Normally in tourism adverts tourists are expunged completely; in that people consider tour groups to be a nuisance in real life, in most brochures and commercials they are either removed or kept to a minimum as not to detract attention from the monuments which are meant to be exhibited. In fact, much of the rest of this commercial has the figures of tourists expunged in a similar manner.  As an occasional alternative, certain tourism commercial will prominently feature one tourist from whom the viewer can, for those few seconds, live a brief vicarious vacation meant to form an appetite for that place.  This, however, is different; the next few shots are littered with dozens of tourists engaging in what are very obviously tourist activities.  For the most part, they herd around in groups and take pictures of monuments.  So if the conventional wisdom argues that the opposite should be done, why has Croatia chosen to do this?

The answer would appear to be to convince the viewer that Croatia is indeed a place where a multitude of tourists visit.  Showing the city devoid of people would perhaps showcase the beauty of the city and its monuments in a certain light, but it would as well make it seem abandoned and thus somewhat eerie.  This of course would not be a very good marketing point.  Doing it instead in this manner showcases the liveliness – and at the same time showcases the safety – of tourism in Croatia.  When a person cognizes a place it is difficult for them to do such in any form that resembles a totality.  Places, complex as they are, do not sum up easily; thus a person is obliged to think through the catalogue of opinions she or he may have of a place.  For this reason, it becomes rather beneficial for the marketers of place to constantly insert new and fresh opinions into a cultural understanding.  This both widens the catalogue of impressions a person may have of a place while perhaps diluting away the negative understandings that have been unfortunately maintained throughout the years.  What the advertisers of Croatia have done in the commercial done is beneficial; in a country that still tends to bear the burden of an unpleasant recently history, such a demonstration seems absolutely necessary.  The effort is certainly laudable.

© Matthew Campanella

 

 

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Semionaut Award Winner 2014 – Hannah

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

 

IS THIS HEAVEN? REFLECTIONS ON BARTHES AND FACEBOOK

It was before Photography that men had the most to say about the vision of the double. Heautoscopy was compared with an hallucinosis; for centuries this was a great mythic theme. But today it is as if we repressed the profound madness of Photography.[1]
                                                     Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980)

 Never before could we see ourselves at a distance so accurately until photography. Seeing double was a great gestalt and heautoscopy was a great mythic theme that has since subsided with the rise of the photographic image. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida a hundred years after the rise of photography and now, in 2013, mirror images of the world and of ourselves are everywhere. Second Life boasts actual avatars while Facebook is more popular and heavily relies on photography. Perhaps now that the Internet and social media have taken photography to new heights, “the vision of the double” as myth should rise out of repression. The “profound madness” of photography graduated into a mere age of appropriation with its mythic heritage extraordinarily passé. However, Barthes’ admonition is just as powerful in today’s image-based culture.

HoelGraphic

Facebook

 Facebook launched in 2004 as a reservoir of digital people—essentially doppelgängers. A year ago, there were just under a billion Facebook users.[2] That’s a lot of phantom images and biographical info that contribute to this online analogue.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, stated a rather jarring proclamation: “You have one identity […] The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly […] Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[3]

Facebook has become a necessary evil. Those with the most integrity refrain from the social network altogether. Zuckerberg’s idea of branding the person may be the modern way but this does not disarm Zuckerberg flipping what is madness into its opposite, a mark of integrity. It’s no secret that those not so discerning (myself included) give something away when we use it. “I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing.”[4] Everybody knows we are posing. What we give away is more than biographical information and family photos. It is the stuff of family albums. We all know that it is “imaginary” but we don’t just lend ourselves to the social game, we place our lives in an open market, making them incredibly vulnerable.

I depend on Facebook for evidence. A moment happens and if it’s not there amongst the relationship statuses, events, and photos, did it happen? “No doubt it is metaphorically that I derive my existence from the photographer,” writes Barthes, who admits his metaphor but where he nonetheless experiences “the anguish of an uncertain filiation.” An unknown person is prying and will use the tentacles of my (profound) self as bait. Facebook and real life are too often mutually informative, making Barthes’ use of ‘metaphorically’ wrought with slippage.

Zuckerberg’s admonition that we should all have only one identity is absurd and illogical. I funnel a portion of me online, my “one identity” by siphoning off myself into the Internet where it sits like a phantom limb, “but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy.”[5]

Facebook presents a completely schizophrenic paradigm: a digital medley meant to comprise a whole, the newest gestalt: biographical statistics, thoughts, geographical locations, media, the timeline, and of course photographs and selfies—all meant to comprise my singular identity while hopefully safeguarding my profound self.

Death by Instagram

 Instagram (bought by Facebook) places me into historical context as if I belonged there. Twenty vintage hazes offer my everyday digital images the antiquated appeal of the good old days—back when we used film and color saturation faded from time. Instagram mocks today’s nostalgic longing by suggesting that we are all old souls and that our quotidian snapshots were already remembered and safeguarded as familial relics—just as our grandparents were. Facebook may be mad but it’s lost its sincerity, making it less virile to our psyches. Instagram barely clings to sincerity, mythologizing our image in the way a painting once could.

The camera trespasses upon the living and the photograph lingers as a ruin. In a search for something authentic, the Millennials made themselves more dead—the photograph with a vintage haze. Furthermore, a posed photograph boasts the anticipating subject, one who opts for paralysis. By these terms, today’s selfies are none other than metaphorical public suicides.

Facebook’s white glow, timeline, news feed, and updates volunteer the artifice of life while the “home” button is a click away, a digital Oz. Is this heaven?

© Hannah Hoel

 

Footnotes

[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 12-13. Print.

[2] Yung-Hui, Lim. “1 Billion Facebook Users On Earth: Are We There Yet?.” Forbes. 9 30 2012: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

[3] Zimmer, Michael. “Facebook’s Zuckerberg:”Having Two Identities For Yourself is an Example of a Lack of Integrity”.” 14 05 2010: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. 

[4] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 11-12. Print.

 [5]Ibid.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | 1 Comment »

Diversity Act III

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

Act III.  Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité

A Google search for a definition of ‘diversity’ first produces the following, from the University of Oregon, a liberal mission statement verging on a spiritual affirmation – where mere tolerance gives way to an embracing and celebration of an abundance of positive human differences: “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. 
It means understanding that each individual is unique, 
and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along 
the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies.  It is the exploration 
of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. 
It is about understanding each other and moving beyond 
simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the 
rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”.

‘Diversity’ like ‘sustainability’, I wrote in the first part of this sequence, is a buzz word of today which was rarely heard in its contemporary sense a decade ago. In the context of commercial cultural work I first heard the term earlier, at the end of the 1990s, at a semiotics inspired workshop – as part of a Rainbow Nation related positioning opportunity for a South African drinks brand (symbolically a long way on from the still chronologically recent era of Apartheid) where a reassuring underpinning to this new pluralism and tolerance was provided by the notion of the natural gene pool’s unparalleled diversity in that part of the world.

Sanex

This rhetorical rooting of the historical and ideological in the eternal givenness of nature is a central ploy of commercial messaging and popular culture, as identified in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, the pioneer semiologist operating in these areas.  As I write a TV advertisement for Sanex Bio Response deodorant illustrates wonderfully how far this discourse of natural diversity has come in the meantime, combining with that of ecological sustainability. The visual of this TV execution is, in 2014, accompanied in UK by a different v/o script to the one in the film online: “Your underarm skin contains a diversity of natural bacteria essential for keeping skin healthy. If that diversity is disrupted it can affect your skin’s health. New Sanex antiperspirants fight odour-causing bacteria and leave a beneficial mix of bacteria keeping skin healthy”. This latter point is illustrated by a microscopic close-up revealing an underarm biosphere and hosts of beautiful naked women and men doing a Leni Riefenstahl style routine albeit more ethnically diverse, no longer in the cause of Herrenvolk or Kraft durch Freude but now, resoundingly, for personal freshness and diversity.

The prescience of semiological (or semiotic) analysis is heralded in a text by Roland Barthes from as early as 1955, in which he speaks in support of cultural diversity and specificity in a language which would chime happily with the ways in which we have learned to speak of diversity today. In his essay, reprinted in Mythologies, on a high profile photo exhibition brought from the US to Paris, where it was entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’, Barthes critiqued the whole tonality of the event for falsely universalizing a Western middle-class construction of life (received wisdom and imagery around birth, death, love, work etc.) and lacking sensitivity to the true diversity of experience and culture in these areas, notably those differences reflecting injustice and inequalities between rich and poor countries.

BarthesFamily

The myth of the exhibition, Barthes writes, functions in two ways. First the exoticism of superficial differences – the diversity (diversité in the original French) “in skins, skulls and customs” evoking a Babel-like heterogeneity. But then, beneath the surface, the essences and universality of the human condition are sentimentally and misleadingly projected – asserting a shared ‘nature’ at the cost of losing the diversity which is the true stuff of history and the differences on which an authentic rather an exploitative and sentimentalised humanism would be focusing. Barthes’s example of birth here can illustrate the general principle: “True, children are always born, but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth”. ‘Diversité’ is a word Barthes deploys in this piece three times in all, at key points in the argument.

It’s a safe bet today to assume that brands are commissioning semiotic and cultural reports on how diversity is being communicated in different global markets and cross-culturally (these three Semionaut pieces have presented a mosaic of diversity stimulus currently operating in UK culture specifically, but much carries over to or from other places of course). This kind of cultural and brand intelligence into meanings and modes of communicating diversity would be a no-brainer for some obvious candidates (Nike, Dove, HSBC, Virgin, the great metropolitan hubs like London or New York, yoghurt or beauty brands looking at the diversity of ‘good bacteria’ and categories looking to exploit other areas of scientific research in the microbiome). To some degree, as a mainstay of cultural and corporate thinking in an increasingly global market and increasing internal heterogeneity within local cultures, diversity semiotics must be, however, a topic of serious interest for all brands going forward wherever they are – impacting not only on the external consumer projection and interaction but also on internal corporate cultures. It goes without saying that digitalization and social networks, displacing the old media pillars of cultural unity and relative univocality, communicate and feed back into all the pulsing life of diversity and mindfulness around difference that we have been exploring here. And social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter are well advised to adapt semiotic methods to make sense of their own big data sets in understanding and harnessing opportunities around the same set of cultural phenomena.

Davos

Even a cursory analysis of the Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes of diversity and the main trajectories they follow would reveal one major theme, pretty much eclipsed from the late 1980s through to the 2008 financial crisis, which brings us around in some ways full circle to the values of justice, equality and myth disclosure informing the work of Roland Barthes in Mythologies. The biggest emergent theme in diversity, one which Roland Barthes would have appreciated and which is now moving into the dominant mainstream of thinking, is is about equality and fraternity, the values that seem to have been left behind when liberty was reframed (and fetishized to the exclusion of the other two) as economic and regulatory liberalization – with what appears, given the wisdom of hindsight after the economic crash of 2008, to have been a charter for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer with social mobility, in countries such as UK and US (Brazil and some other emerging markets being honourable exceptions in this respect), virtually grinding to a halt.

On that Oregon list of diversity dimensions (above) some are familiar and in the comfort zone, especially in Western societies although globally things move in this area at different speeds, even in different directions. This liberal comfort zone embraces diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, age and religious beliefs (barring a somewhat hasty default populist connotation of ‘terror’ that goes with ‘Muslim’, in which the Islam/Islamist verbal connection is no doubt a factor).

Less familiar, perhaps, therefore retaining an emergent edge, is the notion that socio-economic status, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies (all on the Oregon list) are also dimensions to be taken into account in embracing diversity. But in the wake of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, with an increasing emphasis now on inclusion, the detrimental social impact of a widening rich-poor gap, and the evolution of ‘sustainability’ meanings from an exclusive ecological focus in the past to the emerging emphasis on social sustainability (where the discourses coincide with emergent diversity concerns, as maintaining natural diversity overlaps with ecological sustainability). And this is no longer just about small groups of radical activists or semiologists sniping from the sidelines about bourgeois popular culture. These are concerns reflected in big corporations such Unilever signaling a major shift in philosophy and global activity from a bygone unmindful focus on consumerism and growth at any cost, in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Davos 2014 agenda for “Reshaping the World” and in Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union speech touching on fairer distribution and closing the wealth gap.

As I drafted this, on the morning of  28th January 2014 the voice of Pete Seeger, who died the previous night, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m convinced that sooner or later the people of the whole world will have to do something about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while middle class people like me have to be concerned about the consequences of speaking up and rocking the boat”.  After a long time in the wilderness for this discourse it felt again exacty of the moment. The programme played out with a snatch of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn adapting the words of the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season/ And a time to every purpose under heaven”.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY

I’m arguing the virtues of 12 Years a Slave, with the Semiotic Monkey, who is mischievously taking the side of Django Unchained and pretending to be a fan of Tarantino’s triviality, condescension, aestheticised violence and general semio-perversion. Comparisons like that are odious of course (we share a distaste for loaded binaries preferring on principle Saussure’s differences without positive terms or a Jungian discipline of owning one’s own shadow) but we’re having fun. Long live: realism however harrowing; Steve McQueen’s lingering moments of visual beauty (perfectly timed – slightly too long for commercial cinema, too short for art house self-indulgence); suffering and endurance; the human capacity for corruption – those Southerners are the great granddaddies of the people who won’t let Obama close Guantanamo; Enlightenment values and commitment to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; an integrity and authenticity that leaves in 12 Years a Slave plenty of room for odd chiaroscuro moments of mawkish musicality and a Brad Pitt career-low performance dispatching in one bravura gesture suspicions of any disempowered embedding of the film in Clooney Brangelina relatively cosy Hollywood liberalism.

The Semiotic Monkey switches the chatter to the Rainbow Nation and produces a battered copy of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s What If Latin America Ruled the World from his rucksack.  He shows me the passages around page 390 showing the 2010 analysis of race and income in South Africa, and the same old same old underlying the rainbow myth: “The numbers tell us who in fact run the country. They also reveal what did not change: political liberation from apartheid in 1994 coincided with economic liberalization in 1995, meaning the wealth accumulated during or as a result of apartheid remained in the same hands. […] Those who benefited from the spoils of racism kept their profits, and continue to benefit from them even though apartheid is officially over”.

The Monkey then offers the opinion that redistribution of wealth would undo some of the socioeconomic, political and ideological diversity the Oregon definition is so keen for us to celebrate. Embracing the human riches implicit in socioeconomic diversity is what that old English Hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is about – “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate”.  Share the wealth fairly and you bugger the whole diversity beanery. End of escapade.  Ultimately ‘diverse’, he says, is just a code word for ethnic, gay, disabled – a liberal positive sounding sop to the marginalized. Like ‘community’ it’s a piece of pastoral and exoticism, a word you never hear applied to bankers or the Old Etonians who run UK Gov and local government in London.  Thomas Pynchon, Proverbs for Paranoids: “If they get you asking the wrong questions they don’t have to worry about the answers”. But we are getting closer to the nub of the right question now, and the whole diversity shadow play has, believe it or not, done a lot to help us get there. Never either/or. Always both/and.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semionaut Award Shortlist

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

We start publishing in this coming week the shortlisted essays contesting the Semionaut Award in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. Fascinating work has been submitted by applicants variously located around the world and of many different nationalities.  The judges’ panel considers those you will see before the winner is announced as standing out in the context of competition as a whole. We will publish other commended pieces later.

Watch out for a range of topics from how photographs signify in the context of social media, to the contradictory cultural nuances of Lady Gaga, to selling Croatia as a tourist destination. We also have pieces on trains, cityscapes and advertising campaigns for eco awareness which, coincidentally, hit on two paradigms of special interest to biosemioticians at the moment – to represent nature as something people can observe as if from outside versus nature as something in which we are inextricably implicated.

Big thanks indeed to everybody involved, shortlisted or not, for your impressive contributions and for your enthusiastic interest.

The 2014 Semionaut Award is sponsored by Space Doctors.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Diversity Act I

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey

When I’m training people in commercial semiotics I use as an imaginary prop a character called the Semiotic Monkey, who sits on your shoulder and lets you be the virtual consumer or sample cultural superbeing to whom he has total telepathic access.  So while you walk around being your normal self – interacting, working, playing, falling in love, getting cross, running your culture’s cognitive, communicational, behavioural and prejudicial software – the Monkey looks on dispassionately gathering data, doing pattern recognition, thinking about theory, being relatively objective about the things you tend to get worked up about, and scratching her/his fleas.

I say ‘her/his’ because your own Semiotic Monkey can be configured as you will in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural orientation etc. and in essence is inherently and ineradicably diverse, defined by inbuilt difference in motion rather than static unitary identity – in all things, as in its defining sexual preferences, Bonobo-like by virtue of an enthused (not to say crazed) plurality of tastes and practices.

As an expert in meaning, connotation, context (Hamsini Shivakumar, citing conceptual sources deep in Hindu culture, calls context “the meaning behind the meaning”) and in culture itself, the Semiotic Monkey is naturally drawn to the word ‘diversity’ today.  Diversity, like sustainability, is one of those resonant abstractions that capture the flavour of our times. Rarely heard in everyday usage 10 years ago it’s a word, in polite company, we all now have to at least pretend we understand.

It is a term with wide-ranging connotations which tend, on most occasions, to be emotionally charged because diversity sits on an ideological fault line (or, across cultures, a variety of them). For an instinctive conservative, an aficionado of tradition and clear-cut identities, talk of diversity can trigger anti-liberal and anti-PC warning lights. These in turn prompt a girding of the loins to combat perceived social evils such as out of control immigration, people being encouraged to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, or the spread of same sex marriage. As I write an anti-EC UKIP (Independence Party) politician has been holding the spread of gay marriage responsible for the divine retribution visited on the British in the floods and storms that ravaged the land like a plague at the end of 2013. While others, of course, are more inclined to attribute this to climate change or the notorious vagaries of the weather in this part of the world.

SemioticMonkey2

Conversely the d-word becomes a rallying call for tolerance, openness, equality, community and collaboration – for a warm liberal construction of humanity. An anthropologist from planet Zog would need only to search ‘diversity’ on Google Images to download that chunk of our global cultural software instantly. Try it, but don’t OD on benevolence and goodwill – and may the exercise help you on your personal journey towards effective cliché management.

Locally that visual and verbal language of positive diversity will have, at any point in time, its own rash of bugbears. In UK as I write media are engaging variously with: a need for affirmative action to recruit black and minority ethnic (BME) officers to restore balance to a police force increasingly seen to be out of tune with the communities it serves; the Liberal Democrats’ apologies to female party workers alleging sexual harassment over a number of years by a senior organization figure, Lord Rennard; a premiership football’s team’s sponsor withdrawing its financial support because of a supposedly anti-Semitic celebratory gesture by French striker Nicolas Anelka; and President Putin’s assurances, ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, that it’s not gay people themselves the Russian authorities object to (in English ‘gay’ is semantically a fascinating signifier to unpack) but the activity of  promoting homosexuality among young people.

It’s a sign of how times change that this ‘promoting homosexuality’ argument, now decoded by UK media as a sign of a culturally neanderthal homophobia in Russia, was itself deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s in Section 28 of the Local Government Act designed to combat the activities of teachers intent on upholding diversity (or whatever they called it in those days) as an alternative to institutional heterosexism in schools. I felt at the time that the Thatcher regime may have been secretly getting a little warm under the collar about school teachers and polytechnic lecturers in places like Camden and Islington having plans to try to make homosexuality compulsory. They had to be crushed by any means, as did the miners. One great Margaret Thatcher myth was that of the greengrocer’s daughter, with all the sentimental petit bourgeois ideological baggage that entailed. If we perpetuate that unitary myth in any form today we overlook a great diversity opportunity to also acknowledge that Mrs Thatcher was the property developer’s wife and the arms dealer’s mother.

All this is just in the last few days, a fraction of the corpus that would need to be looked at for a current semiotic and cultural analysis of the diversity theme in UK media alone – with Nelson Mandela’s funeral and its reprise of history still recent news, trials in progress in the background of once loved TV and radio personalities for sexual abuse committed many years ago when standards were evidently perceived less stringently than they are today (is a future time imaginable when paedophilia will be normalized again, perhaps as part of positive diversity, as it was in classical Greek culture?). And the arrival of blockbusting Hollywood movie 12 Years a Slave directed by black Briton Steve McQueen. Why do black British actors have to go to America to succeed? Why aren’t they being spotted by the BBC. for example? Are their parents sending them to the wrong schools by any chance? Could they perhaps be exercising their freedom of choice in education a little more responsibly?

Meanwhile still in the background there rumble on in the Anglican Church, that relic of an earlier imperial phase of globalization, corrosive debates around the ordination of female or gay priests and bishops that stretch to near breaking point the ideological bonds that can link places as diverse as the West coasts of Africa and the United States through the historical mediation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To say nothing of Islamophobia or what’s coming out of the Roman Catholic woodwork, the discussion around holding the Church and its sexually predatory priests accountable, and compensating their victims.. Who knows ultimately the truth behind any of this diverse traffic of culture and semiosis?  Not the Semiotic Monkey, that’s for sure. He observes, reports, keeps an open mind.

Act II will follow shortly

© Malcolm Evans 2014

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Day-Glo Love RIP

Friday, January 17th, 2014

DayGlo1

I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, IT’S JUST THAT THE ANTIPODES ARE EMERGING FROM SOMETHING OF A FLUORESCENCE FEST; a cavorting carnival of day-glo where, around every corner, something harmfully orange or green lies in wait to colourfully mug you.  But, scratching beneath the surface, this brash urban grammar is semiotically rich. Ramrodded into a semiotic square, it might look something like this:

DayGlo2

OFFLINE NOTORIETY:  With the likes of Tumblr elevating fashions and personalities out of obscurity, fluoro is the offline equivalent.  Just as night athletes and workmen leverage fluorescent strips to achieve high vis standout, and a highlighter pen is used to illuminate valuable text, fluorescent fashion and goods yield instant personal notoriety in a culture that is saturated with aesthetic noise. A little bit loud, a little bit lary.  This power of saliency was recently exploited by Australian Aboriginal artist, Reko Rennie, who covered the façade of a prominent Sydney building with the traditional geometric markings of the Gadigal people.  Using a strikingly fluorescent colour palette he defiantly foregrounded the issue of Aboriginal land rights and more broadly re-illuminated the ongoing suppression of Australia’s first people.  Widespread embrace of fluoro by youth may also reflect a generational chink in the armour of Antipodean Tall Poppy culture.  A recognition in youth circles that individualism, entrepreneurialism or overt displays of success no longer contravene the right to belong.   Here fluoro codes a kind of collective individualism.

DayGlo3

MANIFESTO:  The conspicuous absence of fluorescence from classical art (to be fair, fluorescent paint was only conceived in the 1930s), and its growing incorporation into the contemporary scene (e.g. Archibald prize winner, Adam Cullen’s controversial work) highlights the power of day-glo to disrupt convention and to earmark acts of transgression.  This is rooted in a historical association between fluoro and rebellion: 90s rave party glow sticks, the death-head lunatics in Batman Forever and the anarchic punk of Rubella Ballet, all delivering fat doses of day-glo and inciting us to rise up in the urban malaise.  In this light, fluoro is a handy visual mantra for youth agitators, serving as muse, catalyst and weapon.  In rude health, an orange fluoro blouse phatically arrests the gaze of innocent bystanders and, on a good day, conatively precipitates protest (averting the eyes, mental scorn, polite tutting, wild sarcasm …).  This consolidates the wearer’s role as outlaw and plots them in opposition to conservative aesthetes, critics and would be oppressors.

DayGlo4IRREPRESSIBLE VIBRANCY & A MATURING RELATIONSHIP WITH REALNESS:  The sheer visual physicality of fluorescence – its uncompromising capacity to excite the eye – can also lend brands and consumers brutal cut through in an era where bland Apple minimalism and the dull, earthy tones of the organic and real food movements dominate the aesthetic register.  Shopping for natural or healthier alternatives in the supermarket, we’ve been bogged in a pious quagmire of squalid browns, reproachfully scratchy cardboards and the wiry evil of burlap (a hair shirt for your sins?).  However, brands like Kiehl’s and Nudie successfully leverage fluorescence as an index (and icon) of the vitality of nature, transmuting some of its raw photosynthetic power or feel-good emotional vibrancy.  Emitting radiation (light) at a higher frequency (energy) than that absorbed, fluoro packs literally bombard the eye whilst promising to wake us up with a natural burst of energy.  In the wake of brands like these, the discourse of natural emergently shifts from atonement, renunciation and miserliness to exuberance, vitality and abundance.  Fluoro packaging has a semiotic field day, symbolising rebellion against the worthy brown dogma, whilst channelling its alternative via mimicry and direct action.

DayGlo6

PRO-ACTIVITY & BLINDING OPTIMISM:  The earlier onset of fluoro culture in New Zealand relative to Australia mirrors the economic gap between the two nations.  Hit harder by the latest wave of economic turmoil, New Zealand youth appropriated fluorescence en masse as a symbol of counter-cultural optimism and proactivity in a climate of fiscal nay saying.  Fluorescent goods helped them to summon the playfulness, excess and abandon of 80s day-glo fashion or the gay naivety of fluoro kids toys, carving out an emotional solace beneath dark economic clouds.  Merchants also got in on the act by daubing shop fronts and interiors with day-glo paint, unwittingly evoking corporate neon signage that blazes from the high rises of urban power centres; a message of economic might to quell consumer jitters.  

DayGlo5CHROMO SOLIDARITY:  Social media has undeniably fractured the consumer landscape, empowering a degree of personal experimentation that was hitherto inaccessible to the herd.  An infinity of digital blogs feed a kaleidoscope of hyper-personalised pursuits: from tea ceremony to dogging.  But fluorescence entered this heavily splintered world and brought a lick of agreement.  Appropriated by legions of youth, fluoro fast became a signifier of tribal solidarity, not dissimilar perhaps to the visual language of bioluminescent jellyfish.  Summoning a heady mix of optimism, transgression and unabashed playfulness, day-glo love united a generation coming of age.

© Rob Engels 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Thumbprinting a Brand

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Indian consumers tend to suffer guilt attacks whenever they ‘selfishly’ consume something individually all by themselves. There are three things that make them shell out big bucks. The product should be used or consumed not by the individual alone but by the whole family, it should be seen by a lot of people and it should endure. Cars, homes, jewelry are the obvious candidates for satisfying these criteria. Audi and BMW have been runaway successes in an otherwise depressed market and the relatively high ticket size hasn’t been a deterrent. All these things are up for public view and not for private individual consumption.

kurkurechaitimeachievers

Family is prioritized over the self. The individual is submerged in the family collective. And even that collective is robbed of its specialness in the crowd of billions. Specialness of the individual must be reclaimed. And that’s what happens.  No two cars are of the same make remain the same after they have been driven out of the showroom. Each will be personalized in a hundred different ways. It will bear testimony to the owner’s spiritual leanings, his significant others and also his diagnosis of vulnerable points in the vehicle that need to be bolstered in the event of a collision. Tailored clothes continue to command a good market share even when ready to wear is a convenient and cost effective alternative. The neighbourhood tailor (who is very far in accomplishment from the finesse of the bespoke) can be instructed to stitch trousers with your particular preference of five pockets regardless of the fashion of the day.  Apparel brands are creeping in but are yet to establish that understanding relationship that the neighbourhood tailor has with the customer.

It may seem paradoxical but it is logical that the individual would want to extract himself when the force of the collective impinges so strongly on his identity. Individual stories have to be told. Some brands have been clever enough to leverage this desire to make our faces stick our stick out in the crowd. You as an individual featuring on a bag of crisps or having a shade of nail polish named after you is an ode like no other.

SB2

Even if it is a mass produced product, at level of consumption it does not have to be like all others of it’s kind, part of a uniformity. For a long lasting relationship with the Indian audience, it is important that there be room for the individual to imprint his particular signature on it. Brands who have inadvertently stumbled on this, have been happier for it.  Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles is a case in point. It was the first instant noodle brand and somehow it claimed so much heart space that there has never been a strong second competitor in the thirty odd years since it arrived. One key reason could be that consumers spontaneously detected space for making it their own via standard instructions kept to a basic minimum. A noodle dish could be made soup style, dry scrambled egg style or in any other creative way. This gave even the most challenged cook the confidence to conjure up his own recipe. Some person in every office is famed for ‘his’ Maggi. It has even been elevated enough to feature on the menu of some youth hangout cafes. There are roadside Maggi stalls with significant fan followings.

The ability of the Maggi brand to interweave itself with an individual’s identity and life space has been celebrated by the brand in a campaign that gave consumers a platform to share their Maggi stories from when this instant noodle was an integral part of their life events, usually when they were students or as young couples with limited culinary skills. When a brand succeeds in establishing a relationship at that life stage, it will always enjoy a powerful nostalgic connection.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Semiotics | No Comments »

Pretty in Scarlet

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

While having the reputation of a timeless classic in the Western world, red lipstick was considered outdated by Russian females for a long time.  But new generations grow and times change. According to street fashion pictures and cutting edge beauty blogs, red lipstick has been getting back in fashion. However, unlike the 1920s (the triumphal age of red lipstick) a woman with scarlet lips is not trying to convey the image of a femme fatale. Hip youngsters combine it with old-school eyeglasses and skinny jeans and manage to maintain the status quo of  infantile Millennials. What’s behind this emergent trend?

A kiss from the USSR

 Red is a well-recognized colour of communism and the Great Socialistic Revolution – it has a very strong cultural legacy

• The younger generation (18-24) tends to romanticize the Soviet period as an epoch of utopia that they’ve heard a lot about but never consciously witnessed

• Young people’s attraction to the the utopian ideals in Russia matches the Western vintage mania and this combination results in imaginative nostalgia

• Being a reference to the Soviet past, red lipstick has become a clear symbol of this artificially created nostalgic play

RedLipstick2

Reverse femininity

• The traditional idea of femininity is based on tender (in most cases pinkish) shades and is rooted in such image attributes as modesty and fragility. This is determined by the submissive character of a woman in patriarchal Russian society

• Red lipstick is connected with the active role of a woman and at the same time is a typical womanish attribute: unlike neutral make-up it doesn’t make women closer to men to demonstrate the gender equality. On the contrary, it becomes a manifesto of the female identity without connotations of submissive femininity

• Gradually and slowly the role of a woman in a modern society shifts, and red lipstick becomes a statement of emancipation and independence

Passive aggressive

• Spending their teenage years in a time of relative stability and booming consumption, younger urban females are the children of plentitude. Satisfied with their life opportunities, younger Millennial girls were never forced to become go-getters and are rather passive in their social communication

• Looking prominent and aggressive, red lipstick enables young females to beat their fear of going unnoticed and increases their self-confidence

• Red lipstick is a code of libertinism and sexuality. Consumers feel no longer obliged to act and to speak: red lipstick speaks for them and reveals their desire to participate in dialogue with the opposite sex

RedLipstick3

Opposing the dominant ‘natural’ trend

• The natural look is a dominant beauty trend, recalled by the vast majority of female consumers and socially approved due to its neutrality

• Unlike previous generations, for whom communal ideas (and social approval) were always much more important than personal preferences, young females see themselves as individuals and look for the instruments to communicate their unique choice to the public

• Young beauty trendsetters, who are especially driven by the idea of distinctiveness and WOW-factor potential, want to oppose the popular conventions of natural make-up and choose exactly the opposite

In  conclusion and in summary, the red lipstick trend is determined by relatively new need states relevant to leading edge female consumers, the younger representatives of Generation Y.  Though showing some similarities to their Western peers, Russian youngsters are special. The particular character of their consumption drivers is obviously rooted in Russian culture and local specifics. These include such phenomena as utopian imagination, the shift in gender roles, and an individualism which, in contrast with an earlier generation of go-getters, combines for Millennial girls with a new kind of passivity.

© Marina Simakova 2013

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Semionaut Award

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

The editorial team is pleased to announce the Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy Space Doctors,  of $1000 USD – plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field. The prize will be awarded to the winner of a short essay contest (600 to maximum 1500 words), in the Semionaut genre embodied by the pieces on the site, with deadline for entrants of 30th November 2013.

All candidates shortlisted will, like the winner, have their work published by Semionaut and receive detailed feedback from experienced analysts plus guidance on next steps in terms of Semionaut network contacts and possible career development.

The contest is open to students and fresh graduates world wide.  It will be judged by a panel comprising representatives from Semionaut editorial and Space Doctors along with one of the best know names in academic semiotics internationally. The award will be based on the quality of insight, analysis and creative flair displayed in the 600-1500 word essay submitted by the successful candidate.  This may, if appropriate, be supported by a larger body of work showing evidence of the skills we are looking to showcase. All material submitted should be written in English.

Key criteria in reaching the final decision will be the accessibility of the analysis and writing, with potential appeal to a non-specialist non-academic readership, and what people in the marketing and market research world call actionability – work which embodies the usefulness of this type of analysis and the things that can be done with it, in terms of brand strategy, public policy, or advancing a cause.

If you are a potential candidate for the Semionaut Award  please email awards@semionaut.net for the rules and registration.

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Decoding Democracy

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Last year, on February 21 three Russian girls under the name of ‘Pussy Riot’ gave an avant-garde performance, staging a piece of radical action art. They appeared in the main cathedral of Moscow, wearing colorful tights and masks, and tried to sing their ‘punk-prayer’ or better to say punkish  pray-in  to the Virgin Mary. The action was based on using some codes of traditional prayer, combining it with typical words from left-wing manifestos – to the accompaniment of raw garage guitar riffs.

The intention of the performance was to decode the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that has recently become a symbol of corrupted clergy, who together with the state officials converted religious happenings into the kind of high-class leisure activity, half entertainment half political congress. These girls – a philosopher, a poet and a visual artist – objected against this wicked transformation. So they decided to speak, and the message was clear enough to many – from honest priests to the common people. Unfortunately the voice of postmodernity, which sometimes sounds loud enough to be heard, in this particular case was too noisy for the system. This is especially tricky since any system in essence deaf implies a serious need for amplification as well as up-to-date hearing devices.

Quite soon the girls were apprehended, brought in by the police and accused of extremism – inciting the flames of religious hostility and hatred. The Russian Orthodox Church also found that the performance art was a blasphemy. The criminal case against the three young girls was publicized all over the world, and in the West they were treated like victims of a kind of political barbarism, inherent to Russia and its rulers. Yet here, in Russia, it’s vice versa: ‘Pussy Riot’ and their action symbolize freedom. Freedom of expression. Freedom of belief. Freedom of art. Freedom of personal choice and responsibility, which is much stronger and vital than democracy. This is probably one of the universal points where democracy starts, and this is definitely the point of no return.

When people lack something – from bread to democracy, they start to search for a substitute. And if they do not find it somewhere around, they create it. It’s not that bad – at least the idea remains living. So, the Pussy Riot case inspired and fostered a fresh semiotic space, including innovative words and Internet-memes, fashion, ads and virus ads. Although an anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical band, opposed to branding as an ideology, ‘Pussy Riot’ as a symbol got easily transformed into a myth – fashionable, popular, emotionally engaging and reflecting the needs of specific target audience. It hasn’t reached the status of the brand, officially registered as intellectual property but Pussy Riot become a cultural phenomenon, an intangible asset available for free use.

The market, actively soaking up and using available myths, had to respond, despite the fact that a lot of international corporations state that they are neutral to politics and religious issues – this is the matter of business and an element of their politics. Yet, it turns out that in some situations consumers might take this into their own hands and started to influence various markets, some even unconsciously.  This might lead to a very positive finding.

The market is obviously a system itself, having its laws and rules and existing due to the law of supply and demand, a match between opportunism and hedonism. It’s common to consider that all decisions are subject to producers. They can conduct a market research study and get closer to their consumers if they are willing to. Anyway, they are the end decision-makers – they decide what to produce, where to sell and how to promote it. However, consumers may have a great impact on the semiotic landscape. If consumers are active enough and the symbols are strong and recognizable, they can even interfere in the world of brands and products quite freely and straightforwardly.

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For example, IKEA organized a contest ‘Become an IKEA magazine face’, based on a poll on-line. No need to say that the picture below gained the majority of votes. IKEA decided to excluded these participants from the contest together with the picture submitted. Certainly, most consumers were disappointed: the winner they personally chose was rejected.

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Meanwhile activists have used advertising sites to display political art work possibly half disguised as intriguingly unbranded ‘teaser’ ads (see the icon image) and smaller more courageous companies decided to let it go – to satisfy consumers’ needs and play on the territory, in some sense selling the signs of democracy. The following pictures show such an attempt from SKN – a company that provides air conditioning services and installment of air conditioners. These are the images used for an on-line promotion. The slogan is ‘When things are getting hot’ (or, giving a more accurate, almost verbatim translation ‘For hot situations’). An easily readable parallel for the Air Con installers.

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There is also a night club ad, on billboards, which uses the image of a girl wearing a pink mask. Kitschy enough but the interesting part is that there’s neither the name of the club, nor the contacts given – just the address. This seems as intriguing as a members only club, where Victorian gentlemen talk freely about politics and women!

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Such collections are usually called collaborative and are treated as co-branding initiatives. However, they usually appear as a result of long negotiating process. These below covers for iPhones. Of course, they are available in different colors.

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Lots of stores offer a variety of symbols and interpretations on Pussy Riot t-shirts. These are becoming almost trendier than Vivienne Westwood – and definitely more unique than Zara.

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Quite recently a German lingerie brand uploaded a quite provocative viral video on a similar theme.  This actually contradicts Pussy Riot’s radical left and anti-sexist ideas by showing a barely covered young woman strolling along Moscow’s streets in winter. Nevertheless, liked or disliked, approved or disapproved, it was immediately spread via thousands of Facebook pages and blogs.

Who’s next in this Pussy Riot marketing quest?

The concept might ideally fit the Converse brand, to give one example – both in terms of ideology and category relevance. Let’s say, if Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo and famous Converse-lover, were alive, he would definitely agree to star in a Pussy Riot-style ad. Whatever emerges betting shops could probably earn a lot by accepting bets for the names of new players. The task seems definitely risky but worth trying.  And it’s not 100% brand opportunism: it does keeps front of mind how democracy looks in the era of information and in one particular country.

© Marina Simakova 2013

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Beauty Serums

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

 

Serums have become the new elixir of beauty. Almost every brand has a serum product and they seem to be the staple of many a beauty regime. The semiotics of serums reveals a very skilful blend of semantic, packaging and product formulation codes. Serums tend to retail for over £30 for a tiny bottle, so how do the manufacturers justify the high price point? I would argue that it is a combination of factors.

First the semantics of the word serum itself is replete with positive connotations. It is a word that sounds smooth, it is onomatopoeic in the way that vindicates Jacobson’s critique of Saussure’s contention that all language is arbitrary. The sibilant ‘se’ leads into the cossetting cosiness of the ‘rum’, sumptuous to pronounce and to countenance.

Secondly, serums play upon the two sides to the beauty industry. On the one hand there is the perpetuation, and petrification of good looks. On the other side there is the fight against the onslaught of attrition, derma-abrasion and of course anno domini too.

So the positioning of the serum is essentially Janus faced. It promises to immortalize your beauty via the alchemy of the mythical elixir on the one hand. The clues are in the brand names of Elixir, Immortelle, Forever Young and Ageless. The truth of this proposition is reinforced by the idea of a truth serum, something that forces us to be sincere and the connotative links between beauty and truth traced back to Platonism and notions of Platonic forms – serums, it is insinuated help you access this deep ontology of truth.

On the other hand, serums are also a form of vaccine, or an anti-serum used for inoculation. In the case of serums on the market they are inoculating against the disease of decay and entropy. These underlying discourses are reinforced by the packaging codes in the sector. Serum packs tend to emphasize the preciousness and daintiness of the products as beauty unguents but also stress the concentrated nature of the contents, as if nutritional value had been crammed in with geological force. Serums are the royal jelly or caviar of the beauty world and packaging cues this in spades.

Analysis of serums packaging is as indebted to design thinking as to semiotic thinking. Serum packs draw upon such tricks as symmetry, golden ratio, contour bias and emotional design in order to attract customers and to buttress the high price point. There is also a subliminal link between miniaturization and premium technological efficiency that is coded through designs. As research pioneer Louis Cheskin discovered, customers tend to transfer the forms and meanings they encounter in packs to expectations of the contents. This is more important as ever more time poor consumers ruthlessly scan shelves for brands that catch their attention.

There is much to admire in serum packaging Just in terms of outward sculptural form serum product packs brands inflect category codes in a plethora of ways, some borrow from the perfume, food or technology categories or mimic objets d’arts. If you are a ‘pack rat’ (as they say in the US) or just fetishize packaging, then you’ll want to feast your eyes on some of these examples above. These packs are not prototypical of the category norm but I think do represent the variety and the imagination placed within this category. They are also a good showcase of why the siren call of beauty serums has been answered to such lucrative effect.© 

Chris Arning 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Waffle

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

Each country or region has its own specific dish, cuisine or just product to be proud of. And it is nice to be this way because otherwise planet Earth would be the most boring place in the universe. Italians have their developed coffee culture although they don’t actually produce it, France is top-of-mind in wine industry while some other countries are not worse exporters, and in Japan together with the famous sushi they have highly venomous fish as a delicacy. The Balkan countries have a lot in common in terms of food and drink in spite of their different languages, religions, and the unequal access to the sea which characterises this part of Europe. For instance, the population consumes bread in very large quantities. not something especially significant in itself but it bread does provide some interesting cultural by-products.
 
 
One of these is represented by the furious competition in the waffle market in Bulgaria. A waffle here is not in pancake-like shape as in the European tradition, but it is made in a sandwich-like structure, in bars-like forms, with different ingredients – predominantly peanuts and a lot of chocolate, and very often consumer prefer them in bigger packages since one piece is never enough. Prices are low and the number of the brands is unsurprisingly increasing. In fact, a lot of multinational food producers have developed local brands of waffles and a lot of local producers have had in their disposal old, well-known brands targeting predominantly young people on account of their mobility and desire to eat something in a hurry which could be nutritious, ergo – the waffle substitutes for a slice of bread, a croissant or some other snack
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What is curious, however, in the segment in question is packaging. In last couple of years the waffle business in Bulgaria has become, just like the Internet, a platform for information democratization in a highly socio-semiotic manner. Since production is relatively cheap, almost anybody could invent and launch his/her waffle brand (mainly by outsourcing) in order to say something to the world by means of packaging. Sometimes brand names are ironic and mocking (addressing particular people or a nearby town micro culture) or a modern pun, but certainly tending towards the ubnconventional.
   
The communication power of packaging nowadays is well known but we always talk about its commercial side because it is supposed to sell better. Small regions, towns or even groups of people have the opportunity to express their social or political position by waffle packaging along with funny names and frankly stupid messages. Thus, apart from waffles with local names, just like marketers name the local beer or rakia (brandy) brands, we could find waffles called “Vinkel” (i.e. Shaped iron), “Khriza” (Crisis), “Spoko” (Take it easy! – in urban slang), “Jakhuzzi” (Jacuzzi – connected with ‘very private confessions’ of one local fake millionaire and show star, calling himself Mityo “The Pistol”), “Boretz” (The Wrestler, which is a play on the name of the leading brand in the waffle sector “Borovetz” and the association of that word with “mug”), “Boiko” (which is the first name of the former prime-minister), “Svejest” (Fresh –even though there are no anyrefreshing ingredients in it), and even “Sotichgol” (Stoichgoal – reminding us of the Bulgaria and Barcelona football legend Hristo Stoichkov) or “Oralni Strasti” (which means Oral Passions and which was banned soon after its launch not because of the ridiculous name, but because of even more absurd and misleading claims on the package such as “It diminishes the stress” and the like.
 
The packaging of thee brands is accompanied by relevant images and usually very expressive colors because each brand (insofar as ‘brand’ is a correct term at all in this case) tries to compete in shouting with the others. Most of them are short-lived but the social effect in terms of buzz generated is a point to note. Considered all together everything mentioned above might remind us of remind us of the Roman principle ‘bread and circuses’ in a contemporary „micro” micro version. One reason for attention attraction is  the product’s formal difference in relation to bread itself – another, more impactful, is that the packaging serves as message bearer on an equal footing with the regular billboard.   
 
© Dimitar Trendafilov 2013

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

Theorising Cricketainment

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

A critical semiotic analysis of the IPL-cricket brand and its implicit code of engagement with its audience/consumers throws up interesting perspectives. IPL was conceptualized by its creators as a hybrid concept for a country and audience that is very open to hybrids that mix up very different elements into interesting mixes and cocktails. So IPL was a version of the T-20 format of cricket that blended cricket with Bollywood style entertainment and American sports management concepts of league teams owned by business people, with the cheerleaders thrown in for good measure. With the scandals and excesses increasing year by year, after the sixth season, it might be helpful to use semiotic thinking to decode the very identity of IPL that lends itself to such; more importantly, how would audiences and fans be impacted. Can semiotic thinking shed some light on these aspects?

From the mass Indian audience and fan’s point of view, what is IPL-cricket? Is it a sport, a game viz cricket? The implicit but well understood culture and category code of a sporting fan’s engagement with the sport of his choice is of fair play and faith that the game is not rigged in any manner. In any sport, the rules of play are well defined, there are rule-enforcing policemen viz the umpires and within that framework, the contestants – the top sportsmen, high performers that they are, play to win. So, from a ‘sport’ framework, spot fixing and allied match fixing with the brazen involvement of the underworld and cheating sportsmen are anathema. All sports, everywhere, have their scandal stories when big money is involved, along with the fallen idols. But it is understood that the ‘governors’ of the sport will do what it takes to clean up the game of the ‘sleaze’ so that the sports’ fans and sports lovers can enjoy their beloved game without loss of faith or doubt. The credibility of the sport cannot be compromised, else all will be lost.

Or is IPL-cricket, cricket really? If it is cricket-ainment, then does it belong with other forms of televised entertainment and thus virtual realities? In the world of entertainment, everything is make-believe anyway. Even ‘reality’ shows are staged and ‘live’ performances are pre-recorded. The audience knows this and aligns their expectations accordingly. In the ‘entertainment’ frame, everything is staged and created for effect. Why not the matches too? Why not have the matches strategized and co-ordinated to keep the audience guessing and waiting for more, like the script writers do for TV content? And if the sportsmen are akin to actors and stars performing their part in a pre-arranged script, then how does it matter if they cut a side deal for a little bit of spot fixing, for some thrills and extra cash? In a strange way, there is no cheating or dishonesty or problem with the brand, because the brand is delivering what it promised to its audience, viz, entertainment to the max – with sideshows of scandals, controversies et al to add masala and spice to the entertainment. After all, it is showbiz and in showbiz notoriety and infamy sells as much as genuine performance.

Or as a hybrid – that is a mix of both sport and entertainment – like cross-cultural marriages, fusion food and fusion music, does it have its own rules that it should be evaluated against? Then what are those codes and rules of engagement for a hybrid? Clarity of identity and transparency in rules create simplicity of understanding and consequently trust. That the transplanting of American concepts into the Indian soil creates all sorts of confusion and unanticipated outcomes is clearly evident from the six seasons. Cheerleaders become equivalents of item girls in movies, but when required to perform live in public, need to adopt public behaviors that fit in with Indian cultural standards of modesty in public places.  American style free market capitalism in the management of the economics of IPL-Cricket, when transplanted into India’s unregulated or lightly regulated sports market has led to visible and gross excesses of cronyism that gallop unchecked.

In economic terms, clarity brings efficiency via simplicity. The first value add of branding to a marketed product is to create a trust mark that its consumers can rely on to define their expectations so that they can know for sure that they have got their money’s worth. Or as a TV audience, they have got their time’s worth.   In a world of consumer choice, when the consumer-audience wields the power of the remote control, clarity in defining the brand’s identity, the category classification that it belongs to and hence the codes/rules of engagement with its consumer become a necessity, not something that can be denied, overlooked or glossed over. Declining viewership ratings may be the first sign of an underlying, fundamental identity issue which has not been addressed. Semiotic thinking can lead the way to strategic brand management.

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2013

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Prologue to Semiofest

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

 

Editor's Note. Clear concise communication of what benefits semiotics can offer potential clients in the context of market research has long been a key challenge for commercial suppliers of applied semiotic and cultural analysis. Looking back on London's Semiofest 2012, the first annual gathering of commercial and academic practitioners, and looking forward to the imminent second Semiofest in Barcelona in May/June 2013, this article explores a number of questions still calling out for answers in terms that can be immediately convincing and persuasive for the non-specialist. This piece is much longer than anything we normally accept for publication (our essays average 600 words or so) but its timeliness and wide-ranging character make this an irresistible Semionaut proposition as stimulus for thought. One of the keynote presentations at this year's Semiofest is entitled "Making Semiotics Useful".  That's also, implicitly, the challenge of this paper: how do we persuade people that this stuff, in all its varieties, is actually useful, comprehensible, good for something? A challenge which must, surely, speak ultimately not just to the commercial applied semiotician but also to the academic trying to persuade students of the value of semiotics-based studies and justifying research funding.

 

Purpose

After having attended Semiofest 2012 in London, the first global conference on applied semiotics, we have some confidence that we, as semioticians, are in a position to evaluate the global practice of semiotics in a marketing context. We are in a position also to define a range of practices and better define the term such that all applications fit within.

 As semioticians, the barrier to our future success depends on our ability to simply articulate the definition of semiotics and the value it offers in business context. In order for it to be simple to understand, we must describe it without using words like synchronic, diachronic, discursive, etc. This document is an attempt to define the state of the practice to us and to the larger arena of marketing, branding and product development. The benefits of which is that we might manage perceptions of semiotics, take advantage of the opportunities as well as sell semiotics more effectively.

Background

The creators and organisers of Semiofest are clearly on a mission to unify the global semiotics community, encourage the sharing of ideas, and increase the commercial value. To date, semiotics has been difficult to promote. It has been hard to define and package nicely into a digestible proposition that all marketers can comprehend. There is just enough information out there to make it both intriguing and confusing. The promise of having a sound methodology for uncovering the meaning of signs appeals to many, but has caused its traditional definition and application to be altered, adapted and fastened onto other insights gathering disciplines (such as neuro-design, brand strategy, design strategy and traditional marketing research).

Definition and clarity about semiotics was also a challenge for the global audience of practitioners and academics at Semiofest 2012. During the event, we as a community were unable to articulate it in such a way that it served people for the variety of disciplines that find its usage meaningful. But failure to better articulate and manage the perception and relevance is a liability to all that seek to make a living from applying the ‘science of signs’ in marketing, branding and design.

A Definition of Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of decoding and recoding meaning by understanding the signs and codes manifested in culture and absorbed or expressed by each human being. The identification and interpretation of signs and codes allows us to understand the meaning and relevance of concepts and objects without the problematic task of asking people directly what matters to them. Rather, those signs and codes are confirmable by a process of deductive pattern recognition as well as use of the semiotic square for proving dichotomies between patterns that align with a common denominator of meaning. If the dichotomies do not make sense, then the quality of insights will be held in question.

It appears as though the application of semiotics can be matrixed from the decoding in insight gathering to recoding of signs in product and brand development and from the psychological analysis of human perception of the sign to the anthropological analysis of sign meaning in culture.

Schools of Semiotic Thought

We are a signifying species and we project meaning onto the objects around us. Those that follow the logic of Charles Sanders Peirce believe signs are universal and that everything is a sign. Whereas those that follow the logic of Ferdinand De Saussure believe that the meaning of a sign has purely to do with its relevance within a culture.

The Peircian approach lends itself best to an understanding of those instantaneous assessments (unconsciously or consciously) we make of objects in our world. Signs, according to Peirce, can be anything — a hand gesture, a facial expression, the painting of the Mona Lisa, the steam that comes off a hot pot, or the crucifix. The meanings of signs then, include cultural effects but also are perceived in a way that precedes culture, impacting us all the way down to the neurological and animal level. Sign interpretation reflects our self-perception, triggers unconscious emotions and stimulates our salivary glands. With this point of view, Peircians tend to focus on perception and the immediate impact and amplitude of the sign on us psychologically. The dominant themes in culture are compelling to Peircians, because they appear to confirm universal truths (or at least points of view that seem to be revealingly widespread and consistent across cultures) about the nature of perception in all human beings.

According to Ferdinand De Saussure, the sign is a symbol — already an abstraction deriving its meaning from the broader cultural signification system — the world exists because we determine it. It appears Saussure did not concern himself with questions about the nature of perception and the deeper unconscious in his definition of semiotics. Therefore semioticians following Saussure function more as anthropologists studying the communications, traditions and relationships exclusively in culture. They focus not on the immediate impacts of the sign, but rather on longer-term impacts of signs on culture. Commercial semioticians inspired by Saussure tend to see dominant themes as all too common and ultimately inclined to lose their appeal and saliency for people, triggering a creative challenging to produce ever more innovative brand communication.

For all semioticians, branding is a comfortable fit for professional application because branding is really a process of attaching meaning to a product. If a brand is successful in attaching meaning to the product and branding persuades people to buy, then they consume the sign and its meaning by consuming the product. However, due to these foundational differences in semiotic theory, Peircian and Saussurian semioticians have drifted apart, to separate hemispheres of the brand development process. The implication of this basic difference has a tremendous impact on the marketability of semiotics and the confusion about its usefulness within the industry. If we can articulate how and why each is practiced distinctly as well as identify areas for greater integration, the coherence of the offering will improve.

Peircian semiotics leads naturally to its application in synthesis phases of brand development (bringing the brand to life). Peircian semiotics and brand design share something in common. They both tend to favor the perceptual experience and immediate reaction of the consumer to the brand and product. The focus tends to be on the make-up and appearance of the physical object or artifact. Merely the idea of making design beautiful implies that there has been special attention given to the composition of elements that make up meaning. Therefore, Peircian semioticians often act as consultants in the optimization of design such that the composition of signs immediately triggers the intended response. The response may have to do with amplifying cultural relevance. But it may also have just to do with amplifying such immediate and primitive responses as salivation or emotions like anger or joy.

Saussurian semiotics leads naturally to its application in analysis and insights gathering phases of brand development. It could be due in part to semiotics staying true to its roots in abstract areas (linguistics and cultural anthropology). Saussurian semiotics tends to be used for the purposes of brand meaning or product benefit innovation. Saussurian semiotics has become applied in business application as a detection system where, through the identification of residual, dominant and emergent themes, it tracks the movement of an ideology. Saussurians thus tend to be somewhat removed from brand expression phases, because there is less focus on the nature of perception of discrete signs —the focus in more on abstract themes and codes. Semioticians that lead by cultural analysis – that is of the abstract symbolism and language – will naturally produce output that must be handed off to someone else for design translation.

Developing an integrated practice

At best, when we are uncovering insights that pay dividends, semiotics would be used end-to-end to decode meaning in culture and recode meaning to create meaningful, persuasive brands. Therefore, integrating what is best of Peirce and Saussure, promises that holistic solution.

If we are addressing the longevity of a brand that, in theory, should transcend cultural shifts, then we have to look at more universal truths. Also, if we are developing a brand in which the needs of the consumers are less about the reflection of identity and more about the resolution of deep visceral and emotional needs (such as in pharmaceuticals), then using Peircian semiotics to find universal signs that communicate the way the product or brand will resolve those needs is critical. It’s less about how one identifies with the product and more about what that product will do to rescue that individual. Perhaps the best semiotic insights will integrate both schools of thought to address both the primitive, deep unconscious and the more superficial collective unconscious – in effect, a semiotic square that integrates the psychological component and the cultural component.

Likewise, Peircian semioticians who have traditionally worked on brand expression should consider Saussure and exploration of cultural ideological shifts so they too can be involved more upstream during brand meaning and product benefit innovation projects. Spending as much uncovering cultural ideology shifts as in the nature of perception will enable Peircians to develop signs and code that fascinate consumers versus just giving them the assurance that the brand is fulfilling their needs.

What is a Commercial Semiotician?

A commercially applied semiotician is often not a singular occupation. It is a sub-occupation of an individual who is delivering to market an offering in which semiotics adds value. These are perhaps those trained in an array of qualitative and quantitative consumer research techniques that have extended their practice into cultural analysis. These might be design strategist who has recognized the value semiotics brings to demystifying the design making process and in providing logic for converting brand meaning into strategically codified design. Those that are classically educated semioticians might argue that those who stake claim are not true semioticians and part of the cause of the proliferation and dilution of its credibility and reputation. In truth however, those who do practice semiotics commercially, but thoughtfully and dutifully, who are molding and adapting the science to support their work are doing so, partially out of a desire to make a living in a burgeoning field they feel passionate about.

Being a discerning fundamentalist may be a luxury in which the semiotician is a devoted academic and not necessarily compelled to make the discipline marketable. So to many the commercial application of semiotics that originates in the European (Saussurean) academic heritage may appear to be an exclusive right as well as a premium offering reserved for the minority who are recruited by businesses with the forethought, patience and financial resources to afford to explore cultural context broadly and map out opportunity spaces for product and brand meaning innovation.

So is semiotics a methodology that can be adopted wherein rigor is maintained by adopting certain frameworks and procedures or does the semiotician require some formal training and verification?

The Barriers of Semiotic Pedigree to Marketing Application

At Semiofest 2012, one of the few top marketing experts with experience on the client side stressed how important it is for semioticians to use more common language and make the practice more accessible.

The legacy of semiotics has traditionally been academic. While it is the substance of its worthy esteem, it can be a liability if the sophistication of the offering disillusions prospective clients. The challenge then is how to keep the intellectual engine running strong, but silently ‘under the hood’ so the client can eventually take the wheel and drive forward with greater vision and clarity. If the client cannot convert the insights into more compelling brands and products, then the mainstream, commercial value of semiotics shall remain in question. Our ability to make it attractive requires that we very simply define it applicability and the benefits as well as where they fit within current conventional practices of building brands. Certainly there will be some compromises to be made in order for it adoption to increase.

Many of those who understand the power of semiotics perceive it as a premium offering for those with the luxury of spending time and money, beyond reacting to current demands from consumers and threats from competitors, exploring emergent themes to proactively insure the future relevance of their brand and products.

But expanding the market for semiotics has begun to take shape. In the U.S.A. semiotics is being used to improve the coherence and desirability of brands in their current state. Middle marketers and business unit directors value semiotics for its ability to fix brands with fragmented meaning and whose stewards have lost their way. In contrast to its luxury version, the desirability of semiotics has to do with enabling brands to deepen bonds by way of the gravity of dominant cultural themes. In fact, the emergent, intriguing cultural theme might be perceived as a somewhat risky — an untested territory of meaning. For better or for worse, dominant themes appeal to brands seeking to increase their market share in the now and who are unwilling to jeopardize their share of the category in its current state.

If appealing to the mass market is the prize, what then is the added value in rigorously decoding meaning and looking for patterns? The answer to this question requires a shift in perception and an expanded role of semiotics. In addition to operating as only an outside consultant, contracted as an analyst who informs meaning, the semiotician can further add value as a synthesist who curates meaning. In this form, the semiotician is not an outside consultant. The semiotician is rather an internal steward, insuring that the deployment of brand codes and signs are precisely meaningful and resoundingly desirable…despite the revolving door of and distance between brand stakeholders.

In fact, the ability to do so has been the pain point of many business unit directors and global brand managers seeking to build brands with the utmost care but then unsure about how well those insight will be interpreted by different agencies or others responsible for bring the brand to life in a meaningful way.

Design and Semiotics

In partnership with the designer, the semiotician can make inroads into brand expression and activation both as manifestations of brand meaning and purpose. Deeper integration of semiotics and design will enable the semiotician to become an expert in the deployment of brand design-encoded meaning that also carries with it the important cultural and consumer insights.

In general, however, semiotics for business application has been leveraged in pre-design phases and more upstream business and brand strategy planning. The challenge with this approach is that, because it connected with linguistic semiotics, there has historically been less of a clear and obvious link to recoding brand expression and design.

If this is true, then the designer is the semiotician’s ticket to greater prosperity in the business context, especially where semioticians benefit from insuring that coded meaning finds its way to the street to reflect back on to consumers what they initially found meaningful and sensorially captivating. The semiotician needs the designer to fulfill their proposition and ensure the semiotician’s insights pay dividends. Part of the promise of success in marketing application has to do with the ability to recode and see to it that meaning is re-engineered for brands. The creation of precisely meaningful design is the best semiotics can do to start to visibly demonstrate ROI as well as expand the practice into other levels of the marketing community. In order for the business application of semiotics to expand, the designer must play a larger role because they are intrinsically more connected with the brand delivery machine and the day-to-day design projects required to bring semiotic insights to life.

Conversely, semiotics offers the designer something in return — to legitimize and give structure and voice to the previously quiet and unconscious process of the designer (who might just be the most marvelously equipped to decode meaningful signs as subtle as those that show up in typography and letterform structure). With meaning decoded, the integrated team has the potential to elegantly orchestrate precisely meaningful design solutions.

The ability of the designer to function in this different, strategic capacity  (distinct from the designer who is craftsman) requires they have a unique identifier – design semiotician. To earn this definition, the designer will have many added responsibilities. They have to become, as Tim Brown from IDEO describes, T-shaped – vertically integrated, with the creative gifts of a craftsman and horizontally integrated with the ability to recode semiotic insights (and business objectives) into desirable, meaningful design.

Before going forward, we must clearly articulate the differences between the design semiotician and a traditional semiotician, although the functions of the two often overlap. Any time a traditional semiotician is decoding an advertisement and looking for patterns in relation to other ads, they are behaving as a design semiotician – although the design semiotician will often be treated as a specialist, deconstructing such an advertisement to understand the meaning in details such as letterforms and photography style.

The design semiotician is both decoding visual language and recoding design solutions. The design semiotician is as different from the traditional semiotician as an archaeologist is from an anthropologist — regarding physical artifacts as crystallizations of consumer culture, such as competitive pressures and consumer desires. If life were a movie, the design semiotician is watching that movie with the sound turned off — the component of language is not a leading consideration. The design semiotician is paying more attention to immediate perceptions and emotional appraisals of signs and codes. Whereas the traditional semiotician is paying more attention to the way signs and codes reflect broader culture relevance and ideology. The design semiotician is a specialist, well suited to evaluating the quality of persuasive marketing, paying particular attention to the amplitude and theatricality of designer-choreographed signs and codes. While the traditional semiotician is paying particular attention to the context of signs and codes in culture, the design semiotician is considering that same context in addition to the context within category in which those signs and codes solicit.

In the United States, design semiotics has emerged as companies have recognized the importance of controlling the expression of brand meaning across a vast field of global brand stakeholders. Semiotics has become the backbone of the design strategist who is tasked with insuring that design expression born out of business strategy and consumer insights is as true to life as can be – and that there is someone who can create a master plan for understanding how to deploy the use of signifiers and codes.

Despite the benefits of deeper partnership and integration between semiotics and design, there remains the challenge of how to insert this expertise within the well-established, conventional chain of strategic brand communications. Those who traditionally function at the translation point between brand strategy and brand expression (the brand strategist on one side and the creative director on the other) may not be so willing to share the space. Yet there has heretofore existed a blind spot between wherein the insights are recoded and deployed in such a way that thoroughly informs the creative director as well as any other brand stakeholder responsible for managing the expression of brand meaning.

Perhaps a larger challenge to the adoption of design semiotics has to do with the unease designers feel about the demystification of the design making process. Historically, the designer has been entrusted to use their artistry to create products and brands that sell. But as the stakes rise in categories, the mysticism must be replaced by measurable and manageable design. Semiotics (decoding and recoding) has generally been well received as a form of verification and valuation of design’s efficacy.

If we can surpass the challenges stated above, design integration could create unforeseen opportunities for semiotics to add a discipline about the strategic deployment of signs and codes in the marketplace. For example, one of those opportunities has to do with capturing the interest of the shopper. Especially since the design semiotician can be to the traditional semiotician, what the marketplace is to culture. The design semiotician, (as one who has experience addressing the immediacy and amplitude of impact of signs and codes) can provide an expert point of view on the optimization of designs that rise above the noise and chaos of the store.

To do so, the semioticians must understand the rules of engagements in the store, the tactics of the competition as well as how to manage perceptions of the brand portfolio at the shelf through a visual strategy. Semioticians must also understand the conventions about how particular product and brand benefits are communicated through design—How is authenticity communicated, how is luxury communicated and how much do brands have permission to deviate, differentiate and still communicate coherently?

On The Quality of Semiotic Insights

Making semiotics more credible and worthy of the confidence of skeptical marketers was a pattern of its own at Semiofest 2012. Several semioticians, in one form or another, presented methods of making the quality of semiotic insights more measurable and parameters for pattern recognition more autonomic and controlled. There were attempts to truly capture consumer self-disclosures (without the consumer’s awareness that they are being watched) from an N the size of total population of consumers the end product intends to serve.

Thus far, the perception of relevance and truth of semiotic insights depends on the quality of demonstrable pattern recognition and deductive logic. To this point, semiotic insights based on the analysis of a single advertisements is largely debatable.  Historically, semioticians have also relied upon a framework of dichotomies (the semiotic square) as a logical proof. If the dichotomies fit, then the range of meaning is presumed to be true. But there is still risk of some subjectivity. The challenge for semiotics is in creating a stronger reason to believe by providing greater evidence and proof that the decoding of meaning is logical and scientific.

Semioticians are also trying to harness and deconstruct the mechanics of sign significance shift so that we may ultimately become better at forecasting emergent themes and innovation opportunities.

There are also attempts to quantify the results with software that scans images, thereby providing proof of consistency in evaluation and scanning methods and removing subjectivity.

ROI of Semiotics

During Semiofest 2012, there was an effort not only to understand how to measure the quality of semiotics, but also to discuss the perception of reward the client perceives it to offer.

In order for return in investment to be insured there is, at best, some physical manifestation of semiotic insights that creates interest and sales. Traditional commercially applied semioticians are doing the immensely important job of understanding what is the kernel of meaning. But they are somewhat handicapped in terms of being able to evaluate the ROI if they are handing off their findings to the client. But often times, the brand development team, for whatever reason, fails to deliver on those insights. The traditional semioticians often work with creative teams to insure insights are translated effectively. But there is a limit to what can be supervised. The best these semioticians can do is inspire and empower creative teams to carry semiotic insights through to all brand communications. They are not prescribing specific element but rather outlining what elements within a range are ‘on code’.

To earn semioticians entrance into all phases of the product or brand development process requires that they cut their teeth in the broader milieu of the marketing organizational culture, using familiar marketing language and sharing in day-to-day brand deployment challenges. Semioticians have to be somewhat flexible, willing to adapt and simplify their methods to serve the needs of clients. Semioticians have to explore the category almost as much as they explore culture. They have to understand how the shopper is different from the consumer in culture. And they have to understand how to strategically deploy brands, balancing the use of culturally meaningful signs and codes with brand equities and visual signs of competitive gamesmanship.

Semiotics versus Traditional Consumer Insights

Over the past ten years there has been an increasing amount of research addressing the shortcomings of consumer insight gathering by asking the consumer directly about their unmet needs and feelings.

If there is a gradually increasing skepticism about self-report based consumer insights, then perhaps this explains the apparent appeal and attractiveness of semiotics. The promise of semiotics might be that the sign is regarded as an undeniable manifestation of those things that are meaningful to people and can be decoded and analyzed to uncover consumer values, while side-stepping the risks associated with asking the consumer directly about what they want us to believe matters to them.

While the ability to collect thorough consumer self-reports may enable brands to offer the consumer a degree of satisfaction or fulfilment, such insight does not enable these same brands to use this insight to guide them toward defining new ideological spaces that will fascinate the consumer and truly differentiate from competitors. In theory, if all brand meaning were created around fulfillment, then brands and categories would actually begin to converge in meaning around the commonly held motivations that bring people into the category – rather than differentiating from each other, to which brands commonly aspire. By using semiotics to understand human behavior and manifestations of cultural ideology, there is an opportunity for brands to identify opportunities for social disruption and finding true white space.

Another important theme in this area of semiotics versus traditional qualitative research is that self-reports do not always reflect purchase behavior. There has been a growing tide of thought-leaders who have warned us about this. Most of human experience of the world and appraisal of surroundings is processed at an unconscious level. For example, if a consumer has negative feelings about body image or financial status, we draw upon those when seeking that miracle product, yet we do not bring to the store shelf, the full weight of those emotions. On the contrary, we find ourselves delighted and intrigued by the proposition as well as taken by rational consideration about the choices. If this is true, then the best way to determine meaning is not to ask what the consumer feels. If we aren’t to ask the consumer directly, our options are either to use neuroscience to get inside the black box of the human brain to track down the powerful origin of purchase decision processing (a venture which has not yet been perfected or embraced) or we can evaluate the way that meaning and identity have been reflected in culture, precipitated in the signs and codes that resiliently withstand the test of time.

Semioticians would like you to believe that, unconscious or not, the intent and desire of people can be interpreted in aggregate through the analysis of culture and the identification of patterns of meaning decoded from human artifacts. Part of the risk of direct interface with consumers is that we can only assume the relevance of meaning to the culture or likely users. The attractiveness of semiotics to marketers likely has to do with the ability to uncover consumer insights about meaning and desire with an N so large, it undoubtedly reflects the full span of the bell-curve of the target audience. Uncovering meaning in culture promises sales volume.

Traditional consumer insight methods (i.e., ethnographies and focus groups, where consumer are asked what they need and want) can make a claim that semiotics cannot — providing marketers with the assurance of knowing that the insight came directly from the consumer’s mouth (however well that insight reflects purchase decision). Also, referring to semiotics as a true science is debatable. Absolutely, there is rigorous deductive logic, but we can never 100% guarantee that our analysis is without some subjective bias or perceptual fixation. We can never be absolutely sure that a process of uncovering every rock along the evolutionary path to contemporary relevance confirms the historical context of meaning we may have identified. Adding rigour, process and transparency constitutes one more key challenge and opportunity among the many currently facing commercially applied semiotics.

Continuing the conversation

There is no conclusion, as such, to this piece. With the second Semiofest imminent this summation of the state of play right now is deliberately inconclusive, spontaneous, open-ended. One of the keynote speeches for the up and coming 2013 fest, as the editor's note prefacing this piece indicates, is “Making semiotics useful”.  Maybe that’s a key dialogue we ned to engage with right now. In the spirit of making that undeniable usefulness for clients a reality please join the conversation. Starting with short responses in the dialogue boxes to this current piece – or further essays submitted to editorial@semionaut.net picking on some of the points raised here for discussion.

© Michael Colton 2013

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Experts & Agencies, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Vodka’s Enfant Terrible

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

A new interpretation

For a long time, Absolut Vodka dominated the vodka category. Eventually Grey Goose found a gap for innovation. Analysis of the vodka category enables definition of the following Residual, Dominant, and Emergent visual codes:

To keep this analysis concise only the leader of each category is shown below:

Originally, the vodka category drew on Russian and East European dynastic aesthetics and cultural cues to convey tradition and massivity/bulkiness (the Residual codes of vodka). There was then a period where Absolut focused on purity, which was symbolically prominent (the Dominant code). Grey Goose signalled a rupture by opening up the vodka category to a characterful interpretation (the Emergent code).

Tradition versus Character

Sobiesky (Residual) and Absolut (Dominant) packaging can be organised according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of tradition, which claims vodka as a national treasure, and on the other side is the pole of purity, which stresses vodka freshness and transparency.

Whilst textual codes, the Slavic writing on the Sobiesky bottle and the long text of Absolut, characterise the traditional category, Grey Goose subverted this by using image-based signification: a vivid interpretation of Frenchness communicated through the Tricolor colour coding and a drawn illustration of flying geese above a moving sea (the grey geese of foie gras and the nationally typical coastal/ maritime associations).

As such, the move from emphasis on textual to more arresting visual codes enables Grey Goose to keep the codes of purity – the use of the blue, the fresh air of the sea – whilst freeing it from the traditional cultural cues in order to create a characterful interpretation. Relieved from vodka’s historic heritage, the bottle shape moves from the established sense of the massive and substantial to a more refined wine bottle shape.

Purity versus Craftsmanship

Purity is a current cliché of the vodka category and the key feature of Absolut’s brand differentiation. Yet Absolut’s purity is of a particular type, an intrinsic one. The bottle’s connotations of chemistry symbolize the concentration of an extremely sanitary liquid.  In contrasting with this intrinsic purity, Grey Goose cues an extrinsic, ‘crafted’ purity. Drawing on a sophisticated version of the codes of purity, Grey Goose displays a refined artistic graphic, a delicate alliance of blue and grey tones, and the aforementioned elegance of the wine bottle.

As a result, Grey Goose brand differentiation could be summed up by the semiotic square below:

Some thoughts on further innovation…

The theme of purity could be revisited through the use of raw material culturally encoded as ‘noble and pure’, such as organic white roses, to create an ‘ultra pure’ vodka and step even further away from the Absolut chemical purity.

Cueing on the precedent of Lady Gaga’s first-ever black perfume, the purity of vodka could also be distorted into innovative dark vodka.

Powerful, the theme of craftsmanship is opening the way for more global interpretations. One might imagine a Brazilian vodka made from Amazonian fruit. 

© Sophie Gomez 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Rediscovering Old Age

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

 

Whenever you meet clients in India, it seems that every brand is striving to be youthful and wants to target 18-25 year olds. The rest of us on the wrong side of this age divide might as well make ourselves scarce. Any ad review over the last ten years will only showcase young people and older people, if they exist, will at best be middle-aged parental figures, representing irritant authority against whom the youth kick off to make a point. They were either judgmental mother in law like figures, inspecting the home of young couples to see whether their kitchens and bathrooms were being kept up well or simply uncomprehending of the ways of the young generation.

In the past couple of years, there has been an interesting shift. Old people have made an appearance, first in advertising for financial products such as pension plans and now making inroads into sectors such as telecom which were bastions of youth. The old people are emphatically old – very wrinkled and proceeding towards being bent as well. The physicality is where the archetype parts way with the character. They mostly do not conform to the archetype of the wise old man/woman and nor to the covert social take of being strange and cranky.

This is a significant shift in a culture that is beginning to idealize youth. The balance of power has tipped in their favour of young people as they are more economically empowered, making more money than their parents ever saw and also being inherently tech savvy and therefore better able to negotiate the world today.  Traditionally, moving towards maturity and old age was revered and somewhat eagerly awaited. With advancing age came all the privileges of enhanced status and authority reflected in being consulted by the young on every decision and putting the seal of approval on every purchase. Advancing old age meant that it was pay back time for the young, where any good kid was going to dutifully serve and put the elder’s wish before his while the old cultivated a detachment from worldly affairs and a move towards spirituality.

Against the backdrop of this shift, advertising’s sudden engagement with the old and this moving into the foreground of collective consciousness is intriguing. Post tipping of balance of power, what codes govern old age? Perhaps when there is an ambiguous space the imagination runs free. Collectively there is a need to re imagine old age. The contours this reimagining has taken are interesting.

In this imagination, as reflected in advertising, the old are not moving towards either detachment or spirituality. The mood is light, marked with merriment. While the physicality is exaggeratedly old the behavior is emphatically like that of a teenager.

Portrayal of the old as carefree and a tiny bit irresponsible is reflected in a health insurance ad where the son is evaluating a policy and wants his father’s opinion but the father is too busy listening to rap on his iPod and would rather talk about the music than insurance. Or in a bunch of oldies giggling like school girls, cheating at cards and planning a birthday surprise for their brother; again from an insurance ad.

Another theme that gets repeated is that of romance between the old, which is particularly interesting as old couples in India are expected to be done with overt expressions of romance by the time the children come along. Buying diamond rings for your wife in your old age especially when it is preceded by a lifetime of restrained consumption is  intriguing; as is an awkward old man giving his dour wife a rose on Valentine’s day when the cultural norm is one of functional choices and practical transactions between couples.

Reimagining old age is fertile creative territory for the agencies in India and perhaps it is media validation and way forward for those living in changed times. Or maybe an acknowledgement of those who have the big bucks and a history of being consumption deprived.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqg8pVOTooY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N2PRuuYVsA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lb6Ky4PdHw

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | No Comments »

Russians in Films

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the way foreign directors represent Russia in films and the codes that were supposed to bring a Russian setting to life. These movie-makers must have read some pieces of classic Russian literature: the majority of signs and symbols that are supposed to connote Russia turn out to be a director’s representation of the codes rather than the codes themselves, a web of signifiers realising an imaginary Russia.

Most of the codes have been repeated endlessly becoming clichés easily recognized Russian audiences, making the cinema burst out with laughter. The limited number and repetition of these codes exaggerate the ‘Russianness’ of the context and put the story in another dramatic perspective: grotesque. The grotesque is still common on stage as a respected classic Russian drama school approach, so it happily lives within the theatre, rarely appearing elsewhere. The Russian spectator does not expect to see the grotesque on screen, nor did the Hollywood director, I suppose, intend to use this style of representation on purpose.

This study will deconstruct myths about 19th century Russia, as shown in films and appearing in popular culture.

Apart from the usual exaggeration, you can notice the lack of understanding of the difference between the nobles and the peasants of pre-revolutionary Russia. There was a huge cultural gap between these two classes in customs, traditions and beliefs, determined by serfdom, which existed in the country for several centuries and was eliminated only in 1861. Once can find a limited overlap between the cultural systems of the ‘noble’ and the ‘peasant’ worlds, but in general they were like two planets in one galaxy, where the Tsar was certainly treated as a sun. Although stressing the point of difference might seem intolerant in today’s multicultural reality, it is necessary to be accurate with the description of the way people lived, at least for the sake of future generations. As George Santayana once said, ‘Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it’. So, it’s better to clearly see and depict social segregation and its consequences, i.e. its impact on the nature of symbolic systems, instead of mixing all elements of national/cultural specifics in one pot.

Let’s look at some examples. The following codes are always shown in films in the context of the Russian noble class of 19th Century:

Code #1: Lots of fur: fur coats and fur hat

Why true: Russians did wear fur to keep warm.
Why NOT true: Nobles of 19th century chose fine silvery sable, which looks different from other furs and is rarely shown in films; big and heavy fur coats were popular among merchants and their wives, but not the nobles.

Code #2: Drinking vodka

Why true: Vodka was very popular in those days and its production was also in hands of nobles.
Why NOT true: Pure transparent vodka was never drunk those days, it was used in production as a base for creation of more delicate drinks. People preferred to make and drink berry and herbal ‘vodkas’ differentiated from each other by colour and taste.

Code #3: White sky

Why true: In winter when snow is all around – on the ground, on trees and in the air – the sky may be covered by clouds and seem absolutely white. This weather is typical when it’s not that cold outside but at the same time quite wet.
Why NOT true: Back then when winters were very frosty and cold the most common weather was ‘frost and sun’, as Pushkin described it – bright blue sky, no clouds and the ground covered with shiny sparkling snow.

Code #4: Woman’s hair in a plait

Why true: All peasant women wore plaits which were treated as marks of beauty. Besides, by plait thickness and length, men judged woman’s physical strength and health.
Why NOT true: The plait was typical for the village women: on the one hand, peasant women needed to prevent their hair from getting in the way when they were working in fields or at home; and on the other hand these women needed a symbol of beauty they could display. Noble women wore plaits in the 15th century but later on they preferred more complex hair styling. Being subject to French fashion they never let their hair look loose or hang down freely in a plait.  


Code #5:Ice-skating

Why true: Was popular in big cities, took place on the surface of the rivers, and Russia is traditionally a land of rivers (that’s why actually all roads in the country are known to be in a very bad condition: there was never a need for them and native people still have not developed skills in road construction).

Why NOT true: A river’s surface is not smooth, so skating was not as elegant as ishown in films. In  the19th century only two artificial skate rinks existed, in St Petersburg and Moscow. Sledging, incidentally, snowball fights and building a snowmen were more common and easier to do.

 

Code #6: Three, as a rule black, horses drawing a coach

Why true: Russian ‘Troika’ (literally: ‘three’, i.e. 3 horses) is a symbol of such phenomena as freedom, the inner search and a long road ahead. In reality, this was also one of the most popular forms of carriage.

Why NOT true: Other kinds of carriages also existed and were commonly used: nobles could use even 6 horses pulling their carriage. A troika with black horses is more of an exclusion: breeds of white, brown and grey horse were more widespread. ‘Apples on grey’, horses of light grey color with yellowish spots,  were the true Russian luxury.

Code #7: Flowery shawl

Why true: An authentic example of folk craft, manufactured since the end of 18th century. This unique rural Russian fabric patterning is still available, and trendy among hip young women.
Why NOT true: Never worn by noble women, only peasants.

 

Code #8: Big colourful onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches

Why true: There are some famous churches with colourful onion domes (especially popular with tourists). in Russia’s big cities.
Why NOT true: None of these ‘colourful’ churches had the status of  a major or state cathedral. The latter were big and brutal, without the playful image of picturesque ice-cream-like domes. Moreover, small, white stone and wooden churches played a more significant role in the religious life of Russians of those times: so if a person felt like having an intimate rendez-vous with God, he or she would have preferred to go to a small church and hide from the eyes of others.

This list could certainly be extended.

All these codes may be discovered in such films as ‘Onegin’ starring Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes, British TV-series like ‘Crime and Punishment’, several adaptations of ‘War and Peace’ and coming soon ‘Anna Karenina’ directed by John Wright.

My favorite personification of Russia is Princess Sasha from the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece ‘Orlando’. She’s absolutely amazing wearing her fur hat with giant fake sapphires, a thick brunette plait and with a possessive look in her eyes. Yet, it’s not difficult to see that she’s 100% French: she has absolutely non-Russian facial features.

This is a perfect example that it’s not enough to be aware only of the cultural codes, and that three things are much to be desired – real attention to detail, consistency with historical truths and contradictions, and a sense of proportion.  

© Marina Simakova 2012

Posted in Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Hedging semiotic bets

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

 

I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do a project on premium beauty last month. This involved a field trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (still colloquially known as Saigon). While analysing beauty archetypes and immersing myself in glamour magazines and visual culture I was struck by the creeping influence of an array of new beauty looks which play with mixed racial identity in an ambiguous way. This is a semiotic hedging strategy for a region which is becoming increasingly sure of itself and aware of its growing hegemony, whilst still vestigially in thrall to the West.

Those who track such things know that the beauty archetypes have been becoming more Asian for years. In 2006/07 Shiseido launched Tsubaki in a lacquerware looking bottle touting the uniqueness of Japanese beauty. A brand called Ichimaki did the same thing. At the same time the Kao brand Asience released a cringeful and starring actress heavily insinuating the superiority of East Asian over European women. No longer are leggy blondes fawned over in quite the same way as they used to be; except perhaps in hostess bars! Far from seeking to be European, the pellucid, almost sepulchral North East Asian look seems to be favoured. Cosmetic surgery is booming and generally deployed to widen eyes, mitigate the epicanthic lid and lengthen the nose bone. Whilst this may have been originally motivated by a desire to emulate Westerners, this has been appropriated as an East Asian look in its own right.. This represents a paradigm shift from the round faced and fatter cheeked Vietnamese beauty of the 1980s and before. In Vietnam this is being driven by Korean (and to a lesser extent Japanese) visual culture with slick premium beauty brands such as Ohui, Lenarge and others. In this, Korean K-Pop, soft power and brands work hand in glove with one another.

Anna Truong

So, we have this general drift towards celebration of East Asian beauty. At the same time there is this penchant for mixed race models. I conducted a similar project in Japan 5 years ago and was struck by the popularity of so called ‘haafu’ (Eurasian half Japanese, half European models) even though they were still exotic  and marginal curiosities it seems back then. In Japan the stigma of not being totally Japanese is gradually falling away. There are now famous ‘post race’ tarento such as Rora who are a Japanese, Russian, Bangladeshi mix. In Vietnam, a more conservative less ‘postmodern’ society, Anna Truong is a popular half Vietnamese, half German model and daughter of a famous singer noted for her warm and classy Eurasian beauty. Now what we see is the so called the Eurasian look being used alongside the more refined, more racially distinct and paler Korean look.

The mix is becoming hard to trace. Asian women who have been enhanced or are made up to have a more European look jostle with Europeans with black hair and the sort of skin that approaches a pallor of Japanese skin along with genuine Eurasians. This places the latter group – perhaps previously ostracised – in the ironic position of now being able to accuse ‘full blooded’ models of seeking to ‘pass themselves off’…

Za advertising

So, if we consider some of the images chosen here we can see how this shift is playing itself out in practise. The Za cosmetics print ad features two models dressed as flower power exiles. They have the rosy pinkish complexion and broader cheekbones and the auburn highlights popular in East Asia but note their Amazonian stature and cosmopolitan aura. The ad perfectly captures the vanillarized ambiguity of these looks – impossible to pigeonhole, easy to accept. They paddle off a miscegenated atoll somewhere in the territorial waters of ‘Ocean Eurasia’ but refuse to be pinned down or reveal their definite co-ordinates. Occidental Caucasianness is becoming a twist or garnish to spice up looks, rather than adopted wholesale.

This Lancome ad I saw outside a shopping mall in Saigon and in a fashion magazine is another significant cultural text. The two models adopt an identical gaze, as if the art director could not decide which to use. The double appeal of Caucasian and East Asian is the key here. This is also what all mixed race people have always known; we’re always ‘double’ in consciousness and heritage, never half. The beholder is meant to mix the identities in the mind like colour palette on an easel.

Lancome advertising

An experiment by Gillian Rhodes a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in 2006 found that when Caucasian and Japanese subjects were shown photos of Caucasian, Japanese and Eurasian faces both groups rated the Eurasian faces as most attractive. A hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is that these faces are preferred because they signal genetic diversity, a vital marker of reproductive health..

As someone of Caribbean heritage who lived through the 1980s in the UK when being mixed race was not embraced in the quite the same way it is now, I am stunned at the ubiquity of mixed race models, particularly Caribbean/white mixed in UK advertising and on TV by mainstream brands like M&S. Miscegenation has become the darling of brand guardians who seem to think this ethnic daring boosts credibility with a progressive population, who may have their prejudices (and as we know from the muppet opera Avenue Q ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’) but who want to believe in a world where exotic beauty trumps race. Of course the Obama phenomenon would have fed this trend. In East Asia the decision to use these models seems less political than strategic. From the semiotic perspective, this reveling in gradations is a sort of aesthetic rapprochement. The Eurasian look seems to square the circle, blending proud celebration of Asian skin with a dash of Caucasian exoticism. This also helps manage the tension between the desire for cultural capital and class mobility and the need to be anchored to an East Asian root. 

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Chocolate Vietnam

Friday, November 9th, 2012

 

This Vietnamese chocolate pack is a perfect juxtaposition of globalized visual culture and the extraction of semiotic cues of local influence. As ethnographer Arjun Appadurai wrote: “The central problem of today's global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization… What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way…” (p. 6; Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture). This dialectic drives branding and design codes.

The excellent paper by Thurlow and Aiello (National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry Crispin Thurlow and Georgia Aiello, Journal of Visual Communication, 2007) on aircraft tailfins showed how global kinetic motion vector motifs can be hybridized with local avian mythology to create national airline brands that also successfully conform to an international design idiom. A similar thing is happening here. Chocolate has for a while been becoming much less a sweet confectionary and being seen as a gourmet foodstuff. The cocoa bean usually rendered in faux naïf illustrator (as if straight off a Linaeus etching) style has become a staple image in the brave new world of bean to bar new chocolatiers. The Marou pack cleverly combines this with subtle cultural cues. The brand descriptor and historicist font used for the title is a contrivance of Gallic savoir faire. The title Faiseurs de Chocolat – is ‘made up’ French (it should be fabricants) and the square cartouche reference vaguely fin de siècle France luxury goods.

To the uneducated observer (which I still consider myself to be after only a two week stint), the main design influences in Vietnam are Vietnamese re-creations of broadly Chinese design and a re-imagined colonial France. This stunning chocolate packaging from Marou subtly references both of these traditions whilst arguably forging a delightfully charming Vietnamese confection. The building that houses the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City would probably be a good example of this type of hybrid form. It is a pleasing mix of Chinese and French influences with the splayed eaves and roofing characteristic of pagodas, engraved calligraphic panels, and the cloud and transom patterns in balustrades, but with the shutters, balconies and neo classical influences of French architecture. This 1937 building, is an example of forging something distinctively Vietnamese out of semiotic resources available.

Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

The colouring of the pack is interesting too. The ochre yellow is ubiquitous in Hanoi and in the South. This stucco seems to be used on all the old French colonial houses. Significant now of faded grandeur, it is arguably used to re-orientalize Vietnamese products for the Viet Kieu, South Vietnamese exiles who crave romanticized views of Vietnam they had to leave behind in painful circumstances in the 1970s and because they do not now recognize their country.

Vietnam is a country still quite divided between North and South living in the shadow and the trauma of two bitterly fought colonial struggles. The North via photography and other elements martially commemorate their struggle and eventual triumph against massive odds. The South who lost the war – but appear to be winning the peace – are nostalgic about remembering what was interrupted and purged in 1976. Being publicly nostalgic has only quite recently become a possible trope in Vietnam. As cultural anthropologist Christophe Robert comments: “Indulging in nostalgia is akin to dilettantism and bourgeois loafing…After independence and reunification of the country had been achieved. Nostalgia for the bad old days was inappropriate. In political terms, and especially in Saigon and southern Vietnam, nostalgia could potentially open the door to revisionist accounts calling into question the brutal means- and the authoritarian governance of the Communist Party.” (Robert, p. 408)

When it comes to the luxury goods there is a demand from more discerning old money in both Hanoi and Saigon for nostalgia in art, interior design and packaging. It seems that the two Frenchmen who set up this brand wittingly or unwittingly tap into this vein whilst also auto-orientalizing Vietnam for foreign visitors. I picked this item up in the Sofitel in Ho Chi Minh –; at 131,000 dong, (about $5) it is definitely a chi chi item you wouldn’t find it in a normal supermarket. My cultural anthropologist colleague Christophe Robert believes that this pack would appeal only to the very pinnacle of the social hierarchy in Vietnam, those with both money and symbolic education to be able to appreciate the references. Aside from being beautifully and artfully put together, this pack seems to be a semiotic text that shrewdly pushes the right buttons both with overseas Viet Kieu diaspora, nostalgia craving rich Vietnamese and easily impressed, time pressed foreigners like me looking for swift souvenirs.

© Chris Arning 2012

References

Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture (1990)

Robert, Christophe ‘The Return of the Repressed: Uncanny Spaces of Nostalgia and Loss in Trâ`n Anh Hùng’s Cyclo’ Positions 20:1 (2012)

Thurlow, Crispin and Georgia Aeillo, ‘National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry’, Journal of Visual Communication, (2007)

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The truth is out there

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 

For almost a century Russian society lived in the sweet dystopia called Soviet communism. No private property, no economic choice, limited contact with the world outside created a feeling that there was one kind of reality, the one Soviet people lived in, and no alternative to it.  Even those who refused to believe in Soviet ideas and opposed state ideology faced a total absence of choice in their daily lives. There were ’bread’, ‘milk’ and ‘vodka’ – commodities rather than varieties or brands. Back then it was as if Individual preferences did not exist. 

Then came the collapse and a new era began. The Russian market burst out with foreign brands and products – and Snickers, along with many other sisters and brothers from the US and Western Europe, conquered the local commodities. This led to a massive and fundamental change in consumers’ mental and visual representation of product reality. With the fall of the Iron Curtain also came a loss of the connection between signs and their hitherto inherent meanings.

Previously ‘milk’, for example, had been a universal signifier that mirrored what was perceived to be the true nature of the signified, or at least the mental representation of the thing called ‘milk’ had never been diversified into branded ‘Danone-milk’ or  ‘Country House-milk’. It stood as the one and only ‘milk’ – as a category, as a product, as a substance, as a word.  With the emerging brands and varieties a tempting world of alternatives opened up to people, now consumers. As we all know, the fruit of temptation can make the gates of Eden close forever.

So gradually Russian consumers got used to the market economy and consumption became one of the most common and pleasurable vices.  There is, however, something that makes the satisfaction of ownership incomplete – a longing for true meaning. 

Through past experience the majority of Russian consumers learnt that there could be only one true product, unbranded, the one that actually gave birth to the whole category. The situation where the product on sale coincided with the generic notion of milk by name, along with a general absence of alternatives, coincided with a pervasive perception that somewhere there is  a certain space of ‘truth’. In this space any meaning ideally matches the sign – they are a priori linked with each other and there is no way to detach them.

No need to say that Roland Barthes’ theory of simulacrum is not taught at schools. Most people think that the idea of a thing is the thing itself and this thing has it’s one and only essence. The one and only name of the thing is treated as the part of its one and only identity. In this case everything is measured in the grades of ‘truth’: the closer a branded product is to the ‘Milk’, the more truthful and the better it is (since ‘Milk’ itself is the absolute best).  

When buying a pack of milk, the Russian consumer always tries to estimate whether this product is true or not. He makes the choice hesitating and continues to hesitate while drinking it. Every new product gives a glimmer of hope that finally this is the one, the true milk, but unfortunately there’s no proof.

Again and again consumers search for the true and the criteria of truth vary from person to person. Consumers try to remain ‘true humans’, ‘true men’ and ‘true women’, ‘true friends’, ‘true lovers’ and to choose the ‘true product’. Producers struggle to fit consumers’ image of ‘true’ and construct a system of signs and symbols that could be decoded as the elements of true nature.

This situation determines the success of the private labels available in retail. Signs that connote to Soviet times are also perceived very positively. For example, one of Valio’s campaigns was completely based on the idea of truth: big sky blue stickers in metro announce ‘Pure truth. Pure milk’.

Claims about real, authentic, essential, pure, natural products from childhood are everywhere. Yet, in consumers’ minds there’s always a seed of doubt: what if in the today’s market reality there’s no truth at all?  

© Marina Simakova 2012

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Reserved Meaning

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Using different drinks glasses as a way of explaining codes and cultural meanings is a well-established routine in the discourse of commercial semiotics. Monty Alexander first introduced this at Semiotic Solutions and Australia’s Jake Pearce has more recently adapted it on a short YouTube film. Pearce introduces semiotics by using an obvious everyday example – demonstrating the differences in perception that arise between witnessing sparkling wine being drunk from a beer glass and seeing someone drinking it in a more properly ‘meaningful’ way from a champagne glass. Jake Pearce goes on to argue that the confusing sensation of seeing champagne in a tankard, like seeing a mature man wearing bright red lipstick, is an error in the continuum of meaning – of the sort that semiotics can help you avoid in actual commercial communication in any form.

"I'm in the wrong place on the semiotic expert continuum"

I enjoyed Jake Pearce’s performance since nothing in the world seemed more stable than his examples. But this impression lasted only a month or two. You may understand my surprise when in at the beginning of the winter, the season when dark beer usually comes out on the stage, the local Bulgarian brand Zagorka (owned by Heineken) launched new 360º campaign promoting its variant of stout beer but with an explicitly wine-like style message. This brand new product was called ‘Reserva’, offered in a limited edition and for a limited period (“only this winter”) – and its distinctive feature was the blueberry taste.

It should be noted that in Bulgaria people involved in food and drink industry are clear (or maybe were clear) about the taste preferences of the average consumer. Everything should have a consistent, strong taste – black strong coffee, fiery alcohol, etc.  Briefly, beer is nothing, but beer, and the perception of the local consumer was seriously challenged especially by the TV commercial. In the spot we could see beer bottles put on familiar wine shelves with date plates on them displaying years in the near future – 2015, 2016 and so on. Then a hand picked up the bottle and filled a wine glass with the beer in question.

The Reserva case was made even more complex because in previous years dark beer in the local market had been rather exception rather than the rule, although with the arrival of this different kind of taste and sensory experience a few dark beers had taken their place on the shelves. The most curious fact was that the overall message put together by different channels tended to accentuate he wine reference as an interesting tool for distinguishing such an extraordinary product from the beer category as a whole – but without positioning it as wine, since after all it was actually still a beer.

I don’t know what Jake Pearce  would say about this, but I appraised this marketing move as daring and potentially paradigm-changing.  Pearce’s argument is completely supported by the U.S. professor of malting and brewing science Charles Bamforth, who dedicates a whole book to the topic of  Grape vs. Grain (Cambridge University Press, 2008), aiming to demarcate clearly the origin and cultures of the two drinks. Bamforth even aspires to give brewers and the world at large a different perspective on beer and to underline its inherent qualities and heritage, in spite of beer’s “outrageous advertising regimes” and unequal battle with the originally French and precious derivation of wine’s image.

Returning to semiotics, we should remember the principle that meaning is fluid and that nothing is ultimately stable in culture, including the world of alcoholic beverages. Semiotics also teaches us as that if you are presenting something new you should use something close and familiar as a meaning bearer, otherwise your idea will lack some kind of skeleton or face.

That is why I found the Reserva ad semiotically provocative – it positions the product not against wine, in its taken for granted sense, but superimposed on wine (working through a sort of mimicry) and by doing so it draws on the exclusivity and higher class image of wine.

Probably, in a global context, the ad is neither totally new nor original in its attempt to stir up the beer market. In the upcoming winter season Reserva won’t even exist any more in the Bulgarian market place. But in the sprit of above and potentially taking the beer-wine crossover into new diemensions, Charles Bamforth writes: “I believe that the brewer has much to learn from the winemaker”, not least perhaps in moving the beer category forward to a point where it can begin to be associated with a wholeseome lifestyle of health and longevity.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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No dress code for food

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

 

Food voyeurism seems to be a global phenomenon going purely by the number of food related shows from all over the world that are on air. In India we consume them all with gusto. Never mind if most us in India are totally unfamiliar with many of the ingredients and certainly have no idea what a terrine or a béchamel sauce may be. Unfamiliarity with an Enoki mushroom does not keep us from participating in the drama surrounding it on Masterchef. We are learning how the other side eats and we are learning to consume food visually.

Food presentation is something fairly alien to us in India. The kormas and the curries are just one mass which see nothing further by way of presentation than garnishing with finely chopped coriander. Even in garnishing the repertoire doesn’t extend beyond coriander or perhaps coconut and on a really good day it could be fried onions, all on a consistent background color varying between pale yellow to reddish yellow. Compared with the food art that other cuisines are given to, Indian cuisine can be described as visually limited.

This visual poverty seems a little odd for a cuisine that uses a rich array of spices and has a multiplicity of expressions, with each region having a rather complete & distinctive set of offerings. It is rich and imaginative in every way except that it refuses to romance the ingredients and will not dress up charmingly to lure the diner. A carrot will submerge its identity amongst five other vegetables and no vegetable will attempt to hog the limelight by posing as a flower.

Food on the table is good enough. It does not need hard sell. For a culture that believes each grain is a manifestation of god, demanding that food look pretty would be blasphemy.  Grains, vegetables, spices themselves are treated with respect even in a busy bazaar. They will all be washed and polished and arranged into geometric heaps. Every transaction with the customer disturbs this arrangement but it is carefully restored. It is much less efficient than simply putting it in a heap or displaying fruits & vegetables in a cardboard box.

Food demands respect. The equation between the diner and the food is fairly clear. Food does not have to try too hard. In fact it will be romanced by ornate containers. The only points of embellishment are the plate and the containers. The great Indian thali does not woo the diner but the food itself.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

A saint was bathing in the Ganges when he came across a group of family members on the banks, shouting angrily at each other. Smiling, he turned to his disciples and asked them why these people should be shouting in such a way. Nobody could provide an answer.

"But why shout at a man who stands just a few feet away? One might just as well tell him what one has to say in a more gentle way", the saint went on. "When two people are angry at each other, the distance between their hearts grows. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the louder they will have to shout in order to bridge the great distance between them. And what happens when two people fall in love? They don't shout at each other but talk softly, because the distance between their hearts is very small, or does not exist at all."

When I was growing up in the UK, there was a series of ads for Safestyle Windows in which a nattily dressed and strangely ageless gentleman would puncture my enjoyment of Countdown to tell me that I would be just mad to pass up his unbeatably-priced uPVC double-glazing. Eagerly awaiting the next numbers round and less than convinced of the functional and emotional benefits of purchasing such a product, I would wisely turn a blind eye. Besides, the guy was always shouting at the top of his voice and didn't come across as a wholly credible recipient of what would have been nearly an entire month's pocket money.

Source: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2005/11/prweb314653.htm

The Safestyle ads have recently returned to our screens in UK, but alas they now lack bite in comparison to the operatic excesses of Go Compare's Gio Compario. For several years now, UK television audiences have been bombarded by this masterpiece of the irritating squall, arguably the single most annoying campaign of the century so far. To those readers in other parts of the world who remain ignorant of Gio's decibel-crunching vocal delivery: how we envy you. For heaven's sake, don't follow this link.

But the Comparioseries is not merely annoying – it actually sounds louder than the ads which show before and after it. It literally shouts over the top of anything you might be doing, saying or thinking. Online sources suggest that the series has been a resounding success for Go Compare, as hapless audiences struggle to rid their minds of that refrain. As ever, the lack of a control makes it impossible to measure how much of this success is down to the intricacies of the campaign rather than the huge media spend itself, but brands looking to follow suit would do well to think twice before reaching for the megaphone.

As our Hindu saint divines, shouting is inherently antagonistic and alienating. Few things say 'I don't care about you' like a raving monologue. Indeed, as if to illustrate the metaphor, a new instalment in the Compario series sees a vengeful neighbour (played by the nation's own Sue Barker) blowing up the protagonist, as the verbal aggression of earlier episodes inevitably escalates into actual physical violence.

No doubt disciples on the banks of the Ganges were at some point also schooled in the other great signified of the shout: madness. If not, they need look no further than the sports betting category, where the shout is fast being adopted by all-comers as the register of choice. Ladbrokes leads the way with the grotesquely exuberant wails of real-life football commentator Tiziano Crudeli, whose screams of "2:1, 60 minutes, 2:1!!" understandably leave fellow match-goers perplexed. In my Countdown days, I could sleep easy in the knowledge that Safestyle were the crazy ones – for offering such recklessly low prices. But in this latest series of ads it is we the public whose madness is presupposed and indeed encouraged. Without any intrinsic benefits to communicate, the plan boils down to this: act crazy and hope it starts to rub off on everyone else, in an open invitation to us all to lose our minds in a great, mad carnival of negative-gain consumerism. Technically, one might say that the shout serves as a means to disavow the voice from the message it delivers, cleverly diverting the audience's attention away from the impotency of the latter in the process. One might also suggest that for all their bluster, there is a certain desperation in these ads, as they make a tacit (well, actually very noisy) confession of their own absurdity to the high priest of advertising.

Source: http://www.prweek.com/uk/news/1084440/Ladbrokes-game-on-SapientNitro/

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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Network: Jonathan

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

 

Where are you, what are you doing?

I am based in the city of Nottingham, where I completed my PhD in Art and Design in 2008. I currently have an eclectic mix of work, which includes Nottingham University Bookshop, public art projects, professional research and writing in art and design practice, publications, teaching and conference papers, including Unmapping the City (2008), and a paper for an Art and Politics conference at the University of Nottingham in May of this year. I also do commercial projects for Create Research (most of my recent publications are on the site), a collaborative platform for investigating the cultural dynamics between research, learning, knowledge and networks [Please add your comments to the current material on the site, which in a nutshell is designed to evolve into a creative ecology or assemblage via the connections and interactions between all four platforms] 

                                                                            Freeze (2006)

What attracted you to semiotics and why did you move on?

The attraction of semiotics was its capacity to analyse, diagnose and above all create meaning(s) through different cultural registers, something which I first encountered, albeit briefly, at Semiotic Solutions in 1998, when I was asked to identify emergent codes with the potential for overcoming strong resistance in 18 – 25 year olds to investing in pensions, the problem being that there was a high level of distrust in financial institutions due to media coverage of bad practice in selling pension products (sounds all too familiar). The experience of Semiotic Solutions was to expose me to the potential of creativity per se, which subsequently led to a move into more overtly material forms of practice in art and design, and by 2002 I was embarking on my MA in Contemporary Art. As my visual practice evolved I became interested in what is problematic in representation and resistant to definition. The dynamism of Deleuze's 'materialist semiotic' offers a 'new image of thought', which for me opened up the possibilities of the sign's materiality as event – things made a come back so to speak, and the non-discursive field of practices, actions, materials and techniques came to the fore. 

Why should semioticians read Deleuze and what should they start with?

I would be reluctant to say should, and with Deleuze it's more a case of do, hence his appeal to artists who aim to critique rational systems in and through their practice. I would say that Deleuze is worth reading if you are a semiotician who is open to the possibility that there might be a different kind of mind independent sign, that is, the material expressions of things themselves. In this respect, Deleuze connects expression to firstness in Peirce, and proposes that affects have a real and autonomous existence. What this requires us to do is encounter the sign as event, a lighting strike, a peacock's feathers, a sunrise, a movement from one state to another, hence Deleuze's recourse to experimental cinema as a technology for expressing the affectivity of the non-human perspective. Try A Shock to Thought; Expression After Deleuze and Guattari (2002), or Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (2006) by way of an introduction.

What are you currently working on?

An essay for the Wellcome Trust, which develops an art historical and cultural context for the artist John Newling's Moringa Trees project (commonly known as Miracle Trees). The essay will deploy an early translation of miracle as semeion 'sign' in the bible, as a basis for situating the materiality of the tree as a thing with a life of its own. Arboreal thinking lies at the root of representation of course.

Materiality, Objects, Stuff; describe your current involvement to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy?

It's about not thinking too much, get in touch with things, pick them up, feel them, experience texture, sensation, weight. Take up cooking, I used to work in a patisserie and still bake cakes every week, and sometimes to order for friends weddings and the like. Go for a walk but make yourself look in unusual directions, or simply write more often with a pen or pencil, make marks and forget about their meaning. Call me old fashioned but I am weary of information overload and find reassurance in the immediacy of things (maybe it's because I just turned 40). The more I encounter the world of stuff the more I edit out the virtual detritus of everyday life, and in turn I appreciate computer time as a higher quality of experience. If all else fails read The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, it's full of meaningful work, and semiotics doesn't get a mention.                                                                                                              

Final thoughts?

Technology is an overused word and often overrated and yet why do we hear so little about the application of technology to non-technical things? A problem we face as a culture is a severe lack soul technology. Or maybe we should not be making the distinction between the traditional or emotional and the technical. What gets lost in a means to end culture, especially one fixated on consumption, is the ethical constitution of aesthetics, that is, the time honoured philosophical question of 'How to live?' There is a certain craft involved in approaching this question, a technique perhaps, one which entails the re-combination of all that was fragmented by the shift toward a modern, industrial society but in radically different As Marx once said 'We erect our structure in imagination before we erect in reality'. Could a materialist semiotics have an important role to play in reverse engineering the established dialogue between reality and imagination? In other words, given the infinite possibilities for creation, why is there so much stability of form?

© Jonathan Willett  2012

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Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Vicky Bullen,CEO of Coley Porter Bell wrote an interesting piece on the Union Jack where she looked at its use in branding and a poll on how consumers feel about it.

Refreshingly, she focused not on the cultural meanings (xenophobia, patriotism) in the flag but on the visual signs that make it up. She writes:

“In pure design terms much of its power derives from an optical illusion… this has created a dynamic, multi-layered design which draws the eye in to the intersection of the three crosses and rewards it with all sorts of interesting shapes and angles”

If you look at international flags there are some rudimentary schema through which they are arranged. For instance, many flags follow France with a tricolore schema with three equal vertical strips, others with three horizontal bands. Some flags have a central unifying area to which the eye is drawn – Japan, Korea and Brazil would be prime examples. Other flags create schema that compartmentalize information like the Stars and Stripes. Some flags have a central line and an isosceles triangle off left, South Africa, for example – there is an off-kilter messiness to these which is not really compensated for by visual complexity and involvement. I hope I do not come across as a chauvinist but the Union Jack does complexity and dynamism in spades.

What the Union Jack does brilliantly is to simultaneously combine symmetry, or at least balance, with an interesting tension. Involving a series of intersecting lines, it has both a centrifugal and a centripetal force to it. It forms a rough schematic and is segmented into four sections but at the same time these are cohesive. This connotes both segmentation and a central axis of unity.

In a sense this is visual metaphor for the reality of the Act of Union, an uneasy co-existence of identity shards. A comedian recently said that it is a country no-one really wants to be part of. The English are phlegmatic, the Welsh simmering with resentment and the Scots positively contemptuous. Only half of Northern Ireland cares about the Union and that is only really to piss off the Irish Republicans in their midst.

The Union Jack is one of the few flags that seems to disrupt its own bounds. It aspires to break through its borders and even out of the 2D flat plane, creating a sense of outward protrusion and impact. It is brilliantly centrifugal and this combines with depth of field because the diagonals are layered underneath the cross to make it a much more engrossing semiotic phenomenon than most other flags – those, for example, which direct your eye to a single symbol, divide the plane up into three equal orthogonal segments or are partitioned into stripes and carve out a special corner zone.

All of this means that the Union Jack (or Union Flag, to give it its proper title before I vex vexillologists out there and you start to correct me) has high semantic density.

“The semantic density of something is the measure of how much information it conveys in relation to its size or duration. The higher the semantic density, or the more semantically dense something is, the more information it packs into the given space or time.” (Andy Bradbury, Neurolinguistic Programming). I always like to give the examples of an average Indian street sensorially – semantically dense – also I like to think that Japanese culture is probably the most semantically dense on Earth. If you were to download the whole of Japanese culture into a digital file (with Tokyo’s dizzying annual output of magazines, films, music and books) it would be very heavy!

Without wanting to get too technical, there are different types of semantic density, pertaining to the way meaning pools on, say, a 2D frame. The litmus test is what will distort the meaning. Sometimes meaning is condensed in a cultural symbol, (symbolic density) sometimes distributed in the schema, as with the tessellations of Islamic architecture – schematic density. Sometimes meaning is distributed through the entire visual field. Where some flags have one density type, the Union Jack seems to be finely poised between density types, keeping the eye busy flipping between them.

The flag hints at schematic density via indexes of the diagonals pointing like arrows whilst also imbuing the flag with transgression through breaking framing of the flag (a mereological density), through spilling over the cordon which most flags respect.

It is also a flag brilliant suited to inflection, which brands have only just started to see the potential of. Both Innocent and Sainsbury’s have seen the explosive potential of the Union Jack to render their messages more dynamic and seemingly youthful in their thrust. To be fair, this sense of explosive potential has always lurked latent in the Union Jack and is definitely one of the reasons it has become both a counter-cultural and a xenophobic symbol. At the same time brands like Ryvita can, in this fetching limited edition pack, exploit the wrapping, ribbon-like qualities of the flag.

The closest parallel to this uptake of the national flag is that of the humble Canadian maple leaf – which becomes much less humble in the hockey team logo context! The Union Jack has almost gone the reverse route – becoming more homely as required. Bullen notes the flexibility of the Union Jack (whichever fraction of the flag used it is instantly recognizable) and its iconic density – it is a flag easily inflected and sampled from, which is also true of the Maple Leaf. As a nation we’re not as comfortable with the flag yet as Canadians are with their flag. There is antipathy towards some of the Union Jacks’ anachronistic connotations while the Maple Leaf was crowd sourced in a national competition so is more indigenous. Even so, it is worth exulting in the Union Jack’s inventive design if nothing else.

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Pretty in pink – on steroids

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Queer femininity is now claiming a major place in popular culture, with stars like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj rising to quasi-messianic status with their millions of fans.

So why are they queer? It’s not just the obvious: that both leave their sexuality open and ambiguous, with Nicki Minaj even accommodating a gay male persona, Roman, amongst her host of alter egos (her animus, Jung might say).

It’s also that they’re both female drag queens – who push the constructedness of femininity to the point that its artifice becomes the main feature, rather than behind-the-scenes scaffolding.  The idea is no longer to be pretty or sexy. Both Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga venture way beyond pretty – going into the domain of the comedic, the silly and the outright monstruous in the name of image construction and performance.

But the statements both artists perform under the banner of femininity go even further in troubling cultural norms. Neither rebel against femininity in a simple sense. We could instead call them ‘hyper-conformists’ – obeying cultural pressures on women to be glamorous and sexy, but taking those norms so literally, and carrying them so far, they end up imploding.

It’s interesting that both stars are loved by little girls. The Barbie-loving girls (Barbs) who follow Nicki Minaj get to see the ‘pretty in pink’ fantasy culture sells them – but steroidally pumped-up and overblown. It’s a queer aesthetic opening doors to the fantastical and rebellious possibilities at the heart of conformity itself.

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Child’s Play

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Lately, it seems as if there’s been an increased blending of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ worlds, particularly in health and personal care, entertainment, and play and gaming.

 

But this blending is not complete- across categories there’s a membrane between what’s considered ‘adult’ and ‘child’ territory, and this membrane has become more permeable- at least in one direction.

Consider the trend of juxtaposing the simple joys and iconography of childhood with products purchased by adults. Target, JC Penny and other brands have recently tapped into the sweet simple pleasures of play and discovery, presenting candy-colored worlds full of lightness and surprise.

 

There are also Tide Pods, which are brightly colored single dose pods of Tide laundry detergent housed in a ‘gumball’ tub. Unfortunately, young children (who are cultural decoders in training) are reading these codes and mistaking the detergent for candy. But, there is no mistake in terms of how this is branded for adults. The advertising, form factor and color of the product lead us to the realm of the child. Infusing childlike fun and wonder into an adult realm defined by efficacy can be revolutionary- Tide Pods are a runaway product.

This approach dimensionalizes brands and offers up resonance in a consumer world where adults now have more permission to engage with ‘the child inside’ (albeit within the loose retro construct of an uncomplicated idyllic past and aesthetic). But, expressing the child in the adult feels more comfortable than accessing the adult in the child; it’s important to remember that the membrane still exists and the permeability feels more appropriate when it’s unidirectional.

For example, for a long time social anxiety about this has bubbled up in the realm of cosmetics. Children must remain a bit innocent of the trappings of culture. This links to key cultural beliefs about the sacrosanct nature of childhood prevalent today. Children must be children, and even in our evolving world of kidpreneurs, child activists, artists, family decision-makers and child transgenders, childhood is still a very defined state of being with key emotional resonance for adults.   Even without the danger of product misinterpretation, the idea of children tapping into ‘adult’ territory is more squirm-worthy and often relegated to the space of play or humor to remain palatable.

 
© Ramona Lyons 2012
 
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Beauty Calls

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

 

“Vicky knows that she has only three seconds to make a good impression”. This is what one of the Head & Shoulders ads says and stunning brunette Vicky shakes her hair in front of the young handsome guy’s face. The voiceover continues to persuade us that her hair is beautiful and healthy.

The perception of beauty is like a religious sense – everybody has it inside but few could define it straight away. It embraces philosophical notions and varies from culture to culture. One thing that seems stable is that beauty is perceived to provide pleasure – but it is not taken for granted that it is something ‘good’. In this regard, the most significant thing is that advertisers and mass media constantly compete to display and represent beauty in better ways. They use art, top models, different inspirational metaphors, slow motion effects, show some elements of nature etc. in order to impose themselves on our perception of ‘beauty’ or (if we can signal and elevation of individual physical manifestations to a higher level of abstraction) of ‘beauty-ness’.

This topic becomes increasingly dramatic when the ‘beauty’ is turned into a focus for social and even political discussion. Last year a renowned Bulgarian plastic surgeon met wry face of the local authorities demonstrating social consequences of his work. He had started a billboard campaign in spring – it was not his first but it was in a different style to previous ones – including a number of different images displayed in the city center of Sofia and other big towns in the country. The images portrayed various good-looking girls drawn in American 1950s style, looking much like Coca-Cola imagery, for example, from that time. The connotative meaning seemed to be deliberately chosen because in the epoch in question American women were mostly housewives whereas Bulgarian women worked on equal terms with their husbands to build together a future Socialist Eden. But the more curious thing was the headlines accompanying the beauties on the billboard, such as “I’m in love with myself” and “I’m too beautiful to get a job”.  All of them had  the same tagline – “Thank you, doctor Enchev!”.

At the beginning of June 2011 the ethical board of National Council of Advertising Regulation denounced the whole campaign as ‘uneducative’, ‘offensive’ and an act of ‘discrimination’. Naturally, quite a few bloggers and concerned citizens directed some peppery remarks toward the doctor’s message, and even named the pictured women as the ‘jobless ones’. As a result the authorities pasted yellow patches on the second half of the poster headlines with a black ‘censored’ sign on it. This was the first example of overtly banned advertising in Bulgaria for many years – except for the usual issues around tobacco and alcohol ads placed near by schools, or TV spots screened at inappropriate times of  day.

The story did not end here. The free market had its say as the surgeon had paid in advance for several month of billboard exposure and the images stayed around until October. Thus the censorship sign served only to enhance the impact of the advertising and attract the attention of passers-by. There were some who even thought that the ban was an ad agency’s trick and pointed to the billboards as a clever promotional plan.

So, the social perception of ‘beauty’ turned out to be a tricky matter.  Obviously everyone rejected the idea that there was no link between work and looking, maybe because even models sell their appearance as ‘labour’ in a sense. The campaign, in fact, was justified by the doctor as “jest”.  But eventually the jest doubled up its effect. The sluggish efforts of the authorities at censorship only increased the buzz around the ads. There were several articles in the media dedicated to the case and widely publicizing the phrases hidden bybthe censorship stickers. As to the ban itself, it attached different kind of connotation to the main message and in extremely high degree brought the much-hated times of socialistic censorship back to consumers’ mind instead of, as intended, protecting his and especially her best interests. 

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012            

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Japanese language comes out to play

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

If the kanji script can be said to be the heart and soul of the Japanese language, and the socially contextual honorific language its social conscience, then gitaigo would be the funny bone or at least the limbic system!  Gitaigo (literally meaning onomatopoeic expressions) are doubled syllables such as puru puru, giri giri, tsuru tsuru or kira kira. These words, which can sound like names of Chinese pandas or Thai gogo girls, are used liberally in daily conversation by all Japanese people and appear in manga and in Twitter feeds.

Gitaigo act either like adverbs letting us know how things are done, how someone feels or the general atmosphere feels. As Seizo Terasaki puts it: “After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are in a sense raw. Moya moya, doro doro, gocha gocha, bara bara, fuwa fuwa – no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own…” (Nihongo Gitaigo Jiten: An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, Tokyo: Plus Alpha, 2004).

They introduce a disruptive emotional component into Japanese. Depending on the context, this can be a sense of whimsy or a brutally direct and visceral rawness. For instance uki uki means a sense of excitement and the hard k between the two vowels seems to convey this. Beta beta means sticky and the hardness of the t seems to convey that sense of icky glueyness. Mecha mecha means messy and seems to convey this sense of disarray, particularly when contrasted with a mellifluous gitaigo like tsuru tsuru meaning smooth. Chiku chiku describes something prickly, and lo and behold is spiky to pronounce too. Niya niya means to smirk and there is something distinctly smarmy about the sound too.

This is because these are all examples of what Roman Jakobson called the iconic in language. He claimed that Saussure’s vision of arbitrariness missed out on the aspect of language that words such as smash, svelte or staccato evoke. They somehow innately resemble the concepts that they refer to through their sonic attributes, so are not totally arbitrary.

Gitaigo also confound expectations about Japanese being po-faced and serious in the sense that they are emotive (in the Jakobsonian sense) words, conveying in a very direct image the addresser’s feeling about something. Superficially, this seems at odds with the highly context dependent and often subtle, euphemistic way the Japanese usually attenuate emotions in language.

In this sense, gitaigo can be likened somewhat to the imagist epiphany meant to be elicited by the best haiku – evoking an emotion with a jolt in a matter of syllables…

As with much in ambiguous Japan, there are many potential interpretations and the use of gitaigo can seem also to be a phenomenon related to the love of children and the basics of childish nonsense language. After all, we start our journey towards mastery of language through baby talk such as baba, mama and the like and then move on to more complex syntactic constructions. Perhaps Japanese reveling in the gitaigo is also (just like the mania for kawaii, regressive fantasy, widespread desire for childhood regression and doting on kids) a facet of this desire to leave adulthood.

In advertising, gitaigo are widely used to convince the Japanese that they will feel a certain way or think a certain way if they purchase a certain good or consume a certain experience. Strawberry juice will be tsubu tsubu meaning pulpy and natural.  The beauty and skin care brands promise a brand that will leave your skin feeling puru puru (plump) and tsuru tsuru (smooth). Pillows, bedspreads or female breasts (depending on the magazine) will be fuwa fuwa (soft). Mobile phones designed for older people, with large displays and buttons, are called raku raku (meaning leisure).

the raku raku phone

To summarise, gitaigo are a vindication of Jakobson’s insistence on the importance of the iconic in language, an example of the whimsy, play and ingenuity at the heart of Japanese culture, and proof of how visceral words can give brands a rhetorical flourish.

© Chris Arning 2012


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Always moving, going nowhere

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

“Familiarity doesn't breed contempt…it can breed love and comfort and adoration”, said minimalist composer Philip Glass recently on BBC radio in a discussion on how his music is used in the media. Listeners had commented on the frequent use of his piece 'Façades' in a wide variety of radio programmes.

Minimalist music is characterised by repetition, usually with evolving change over the course of the piece. Advertising has always known about the power of repetition to sell products.. Now ads frequently use music that can be described as minimalist in tone or form, but why?

Music in ads usually lasts less than a minute so there is little time for development. But it is possible to harness the minimalist mood by using musical extracts that characterise the style.

Glass further commented: “People don't know what they like, they like what they know…the more people hear it, the more people want to hear it… it's something about the way we are wired as human beings”.

Composer Elliot Carter offers insights in opposition: "one also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler and in advertising…We are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement…I cannot understand the popularity of that kind of music, which is based on repetition. In a civilized society things don’t need to be said more than three times."

Clearly repetition is effective, whether you like it or not.

Japura River by Glass has directly been used in advertising by Nokia for their N95 mobile. Supporting the ad’s representation of globalized and shared urban modernity, the music suggests constant motion in its repeated arpeggios played on tuned percussion.

 

Instrumentation and rhythm similar to the Nokia ad is seen in Subaru's film for its Boxer Diesel car. But the mood here is calmer – there is still motion but Ryan Teague's music instead offers a sonic backdrop to an expectation fulfilled. It's a typical example of how minimalist-style music in ads can serve to cradle and reassure the consumer.

 

In an ad for Sky HD reassurance is offered by the presence of distinguished actor Anthony Hopkins reminiscing while Vladimir's Blues by Max Richter plays. Using simple, undemanding harmony and the common minimalist technique of repeated alternation between a pair of notes, the music hints at subtle emotions. In the presence of achieved greatness, there is no need for passion.

 

In fact, passion and drama are avoided in ads that work with the minimalist palette. Lloyds TSB offer customers unobtrusive support through life to the soundtrack of Eliza's Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin. The music uses a vocalized melody characterised by even, classically pure rhythm and timbre. With this music, the brand has the personality of a discreet butler. Polite assistance is provided, but always in the background to the consumer’s own life story.

 

The ideological and cultural implications are clear: narrow dynamic and emotional range, largely unbroken continuity and forward motion, neutral movement between simple major and minor harmony and a purity of tone. There is no final goal to this music or need for a narrative. Consonance not dissonance is emphasized and tempi are usually medium fast – we are moving, but never out of control.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Of Marriages & Products

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 

I love our Big Fat Indian weddings. The colourful mandaps and the phera-chori, the mehendi and the mithai, the glittering bridal nathni and the bridegroom’s shehra, the kanyadaan and the bidaai – all of these are exciting yet intimate moments shared between family and friends.

Does the rest of India also love it? Perhaps it does, both in real and reel life. The two-decade long obsession and popularity with the elaborate Indian wedding is easily apparent in Bollywood movies and satellite television, attracting audiences by the millions. The import of this is not lost on the image-makers branding the Wedding as a luxury product to be consumed in vast proportions.

One often sees advertisements using the backdrop of the Indian Wedding against which to position their products. From sarees, jewellery, suit materials to bank insurances, from lifestyle accessories to food items – Indian weddings have them all.

Let’s do a flashback scenario in a stereotypical context where a young couple is shown nodding to the formalities of the insurance policy. It is almost impossible to get anyone on a rational platform today, leave alone explain benefits! It is, after all an image driven society! Today, many related products with or without any matrimonial implication ride on the Indian wedding as a backdrop. The question is not whether these ads are successful or not, but how marriage as a sign helps connects people to products and brands.

Other products like the fairness cream; – e.g Vicco turmeric or the Raymond suitings too have explored the wedding themes. For example the jingles of “banno teri ankhiyan” that were played in the oldest Vicco ads were an anthem in those days and all one could remember were around twenty women applying haldi to the bride. Also, the Titan ad showing a young girl playing piano for her sister was designed along similar lines. More than the brands, the jingles; the context; the gaze; the expressions have not been forgotten.

A recent survey shows that there is an increase in the new age ‘live in’ relationships. Well, our advertising certainly seems to be replaying the good old stable institution of marriage. One wonders if marriage has become as much of a ‘product’ as are the brands themselves. Either ways, the brands are laughing all the way to the bank! Marriage anyone?

© Heta Trivedi 2012

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz3o1PS7IFo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BRYGTqouuE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvx8pB9Ivoo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZq10WlFQlk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3jEffr4mWQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_As8OycpY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOeUssxuz5U

 

And brush up your wedding vocabulary:

Phera – Rounds taken by husband and wife around the sacrificial fire

Chori – Structure made of wood or steel under which the rituals of a Hindi wedding take place

 Sehra – Garlands of flowers covering the face of the bridegroom

 Mehendi – Henna applied on hands and legs of the bride during wedding

 Kanyadaan – the ritual wherein the parents of the bride give their daughter to her husband

 Bidaai – the ritual where in the girl says good bye to all her family members while leaving from her home after the wedding

Banno teri ankhiyan – a famous song in Hindi language that is sung during weddings

Haldi – Turmeric

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The return of trivia

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

In the late 20th century, postmodernism made a big deal out of small things – turning trivia into an object of cultural fascination in its own right.

One reference point in the postmodern rise of trivia was the ‘Royale with cheese’ scene in Pulp Fiction (1994). Here, the characters played by Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta take a break from plot-orientated dialogue to discuss the right European name for a quarterpounder.

In many of Richard Linklater’s slacker films of the same era, characters also constantly drift into talk that has nothing to do with action. It’s talk for the sake of talk: chit-chat, trivia – untethered from any bigger meaning, action or narrative.

This fascination with trivia led to one of the defining ideas of postmodernism: the end of the ‘grand narrative’ – the big story which subsumes trivia rather than letting it wander free.

But moving into the 21st century, and trivia was supposed to have died a death. The momentousness of 9/11 and a new climate of seriousness put paid to this dalliance with the untethered nuance.

But could it be making a return? A number of cultural products now seem to be rejoicing in the trivia that surrounds us – especially, just like postmodernism, in the micro-ebbs and flows of language.

First, we’ve got the youtube meme ‘Shit girls say’, which has now spun off into ‘Shit guys say’, ‘Shit New Yorkers say’, ‘Shit Scots say’, and many many many more. These clips are collections of linguistic mini-tropes – closely observed inventories of the tiny turns of phrase people use.

Then we’ve got the cult site STFU, Parents – which simply inventories tracts of parental discourse on Facebook (organised into codes like gross-out, sanctimony and so on), each accompanied by an ironic commentary.

There’s also the popular UK blog The Middle Class Handbook (featured on Semionaut here), with its eagle eye for linguistic trivia and tiny turns of phrase. For instance, did you know the correct middle-class way to get someone off the phone is to say ‘I’ll let you get on?’ And that people are now ending emails with the single demand: ‘Thoughts?’

This return to trivia has a lot to do with the rise of social media. With vast tracts of trivial discourse coming our way each day, it makes adaptive sense for culture to turn it into fodder for analysis, copying, recontextualising, pastiching and interpreting.

And as high-concept advertising surrenders some of its supremacy to social media, it’s also likely that semiotics as a discipline will need to turn its attention to tiny details of discourse and language. Clients may increasingly want interpretive keys to the micro-tropes flooding Facebook and Twitter.

An outstanding lineage of famous detail lovers can show the way. Flaubert copied the micro-tropes of the 19th century bourgeoisie into his Dictionary of Received Ideas. Proust was another close observer of tiny nuance. Benjamin too was a lover of details – wrenched out of context and interpreted in startling new lights.

As social media counters the big concepts of traditional branding with its welter of discursive fragments, these writers may well have something fresh to say to us.

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Middle-class life in detail

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

What does it mean to be middle class in Britain in 2012? Does it mean that you earn more than £30,000 but less than £200,000? Does it mean you read the Mail on Sunday and watch the Antiques Roadshow on Catch-Up? Does it mean you call dinner “supper” or lunch “dinner” or supper “tea”? Do you even drink tea anymore, or are you a flat-white type? Do you have your hair cut at a hairdresser’s, by a hairdresser, or in a salon by a senior stylist? Is M&S for sandwiches and basics, or is it your preferred outlet for formalwear? Is Heal’s posh and IKEA naff? Is it important to own “designer clothes”?

All these are vital ‘micro-signs’ of class status in UK life today. And putting them under the microscope is The Middle Class Handbook, –which started life in 2009 as a simple blog dedicated to exploring the stuff modern British middle classes say, do, think and buy.  Since then, it has grown into a vibrant hub and community for all things middle class in Britain today, spawning published books, a buzzing online network, one-off events, flagrantly middle class merchandise, as well as services like specialist middle-class brand consultancy.     
 
Our purpose is to uncover, interpret, debate and, ultimately, celebrate micro-aspects of the tastes and behaviours of the modern middle classes, across fashion, design, food & drink, travel, relationships, motoring and endless other subjects.  We bring tips and how-to guides to  soothe their worries, give a heads-up on brands to watch, inspire talking points, identify trends, provide the inside track on stuff they need to know and, when necessary, settle questions of etiquette.  

We think it’s the small things that people do and say that reveal the most, which is proved by long and passionate debates about important subjects to the middle classes such as muesli, the peculiar attraction of other people’s shower gel, and how much one should tip a pizza delivery person.

These subjects are not glamorous – not usually, anyway – but people have strong feelings and ideas about them, and they enjoy sharing those feelings and ideas with each other. The more we uncover as we look close-up at these minutiae, the more we see there’s wonder in everyday experiences. The small stuff is often the most meaningful of all.

The vital point is that the conduit between the small things and the big meaning is people. It is people alone who can transform the mundane into the momentous and, as the Middle Class Handbook seeks to show, this is something we are all trying to do, in our own way.

The Middle Class Handbook is maintained by independent creative practice Not Actual Size, who, as their name suggests, are all about finding big meanings in small signs.


Enter the wondrous world of the British middle classes here.

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Why all the Pinterest?

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

 

The latest online media phenomenon is called Pinterest. It’s a kind of online scrapbook where users can upload or ‘pin’ their pictures of interest, categorizing them onto boards and, importantly, share for re-pinning. Pinterest’s mission is to ‘connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting’. Of course, the site connects to Facebook where pins are further shared, and it works as a mobile app for photographing and commentary, as well as online.

Although it launched 2 years ago, Pinterest only really grabbed the mainstream attention of its predominantly US and UK users towards the end of 2011. According to Comscore, it is the fastest site to reach 10m unique users in the US (Jan 2012). The site is also extremely influential – it is now referring more traffic to other websites than Twitter.

What makes the site interesting is who uses it and why. Interestingly, 80% of Pinterest’s users are female and the categories range from holidays to décor to apparel. Some of the most liked or most re-pinned images include step by step guides to hairstyles, sun-kissed beaches and cute baby pandas.

Brands have started using Pinterest, taking advantage of the ‘Earned’ value it offers and the buzz around it. For example, BMI Airlines ran a sweepstake style competition – they created different boards including numbered pictures showing different destinations. If users re-pinned 6 of these pictures onto their own boards, they were entered into a sweepstake to win free flights. The sanpro brand, Kotex, identified 50 influential women on Pinterest and sent them personal gifts, based on their interests expressed on their boards. The result for this low-interest category was 2,000 interactions and 700,000 impressions. A case study can be seen here.

Fashion house Oscar de la Renta pinned images from their bridal fashion show live on to the site – it has attracted almost 17,000 followers in less than a week.

The site’s appeal is its simplicity, unlike the more geeky Delicious or Pinboard. And it’s interesting that whilst every other new site or app seems to be designed for mobile, browsing Pinterest can really only be done on a desktop or tablet. The site embodies yet another way for people to express ‘Brand Me’ in the online world.

© Jo Peters 2012

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Blood on the tracks

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

 

Virgil ('Gus') Evans is a Senior Mole at a famous Mid-Eastern secret services provider. Yesterday Evans took time off from his other duties as personal bodyguard to a famous head of state N* to give us an exclusive glimpse into blueprints for his brand’s revolutionary contribution to the new generation of underwear bombs competing clandestine R&D facilities globally are racing to develop.

“Consumers are going to love the torque, elegant lines and intelligent safety features on this one”, Evans avers, “Though when you’re up against a joint venture as lavishly resourced as that CIA, Saudi and Al Qaeda double agents' innovation team nothing’s a foregone conclusion. It’s going to be a game of at least two halves. It may need to go to extra time and penalties. Only the strong will survive. The word on the street is that they also have the backing of a shape-shifting media organization code-named Viz, which has ambitions to create a global shadow state at least as evil and all-embracing as the now defunct Murdoch empire, both having emerged originally in the wake of the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident and the escape at that time of two lizard-like alien siblings known as Richard and Rupert”.

Meanwhile Semionaut has learned independently of another emerging competitor in the lingerie bombing marketplace. The legendary tensions between the Pentagon and the US State Department have erupted again with a NASA-led competitor to the CIA-sponsored device, the one which hit front pages around the world this week. The NASA version, visually directed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and based on the famous cone bra modeled by Madonna in the 1980s, has been secretly engineered by the now centenarian Nazi rocket team (led by Werner von Braun, whose death was faked in 1977) which first put the Americans into space. Our younger Semionaut readers may want to bone up on the history of this team in Tom Bower’s brilliant study The Paperclip Conspiracy (1988) and in The Right Stuff (1979), where Tom Wolfe describes them carousing with frothing steins of Bavarian beer and thumping out iconic Nazi ditty ‘The Horst Wessel Lied’ on a piano in the back room of a bar at Coco Beach Florida while the first Americans walked on the moon.

SS Major Werner von Braun models a revolutionary exploding plaster cast

Evans recounts to me the story of a night he spent in a tent at Coco Beach, in almost unbearable heat and humidity, in July 1979: “Skylab was due to crash to earth around the 10th or the 11th. In those days we weren’t as blasé about such technological detritus as we are now. Devo, who among other things accurately predicted the totality of mind-numbing neoliberal culture and ideology, had actually written a protest song about space junk. Thus forewarned I was in that tent because I thought the safest place on earth to be was probably near Skylab’s original point of departure, Cape Canaveral. Rationally this made no sense at all and there’s a mathematical tool to prove it, the Poisson Distribution. But try telling that to an intuitive creative person like me. In the end we go with the metaphors and narratives. The love marks, Flower Bombs, the loaves and fishes. Neuroscience and MRI scans have taught us that Descartes was wrong anyway and the multifarious hues revealed by brain imaging are now almost exclusively postmodern, except in the more primitive limbic area as yet properly understood only by marketing people. The trouble nowadays is that we’ve forgotten most of the important things and we’re going to need to relearn them. While what we remember and clutter our heads with is mainly diversionary rubbish”.

By now we’re nearing the last lap of our journey from my Ecole Normale Superieure HQ in Paris to the Benllech campus in Anglesey, North Wales. Our super-hi-tech Virgin Pendolino train corners steeply. I lean into Evans, who’s in the window seat, as the carriage tilts almost horizontal. “The trouble with these things”, says Evans. “is they’re like Superbikes. Soon you’ll have to wear thick leather pants with reinforced knees to ride in them. And those are going to muffle the impact even of a 4G underpants bomb. Leaving, even on successful detonation, only mild discomfort for the wearer in the trouser area and at best some minor staining to the upholstery. Given the current economic situation I think Branson should pay taxes in the UK anyway where he's from, fair play, not on Necker or whatever that luxury island's called, where he’s the emperor. Like Judge Dredd. What kind of challenger hero do you call that, notwithstanding all his look-at-me extreme sports palaver with balloons and what have you? Who does he think he is, Harry Potter?”

As we leave Stafford far behind and approach Crewe the mobile phone signal is down to a single bar. Time to file this. Better a cliffhanger than a meaningless catastrophe just around the next bend. 

© Opal Cerdan 2012

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Tell no-one

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Secret cinemas, secret restaurants, secret supperclubs, secret guerrilla cake sales, underground knitting networks….the language of secrecy pervades British culture at the moment. Even chains like Starbucks have their own secret menus known only to the few.

The question is: why the emergence of this craze at a time when the predominant cultural ideology is openness and sharing?

The easy answer is that it’s a backlash. We’re sick of having privacy invaded and ‘specialness’ undermined by everything being visible all the time. So the cult of secrecy comes in as an antidote to all this over-exposure.

Even so, the paradox remains. If you look on the Secret Cinema website, you’ll see its strapline is ‘Tell no-one’ . But the navigation menu then invites us to sign up on Twitter and Facebook, and read the latest press coverage. So someone’s clearly telling someone.

The paradox intensifies when we note that it’s usually sharing on social networks that makes these secret clubs possible. Often you can only find out about them on Twitter or Facebook.

This suggests that social networks create symbolic value by hiding information in plain view, as well as by offering opportunities to share. The quantity of data they offer has become so vast that only those who are truly ‘in the know’ can reach what really counts.  The fashion for secrecy reflects the fact that there's now a new elite – those who can find their way to the information with the highest symbolic value. He or she who knows, wins.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

Semiotics and the interface

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The fields of semiotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), and user experience have flourished in the past years, mostly exclusively of one another. Each has evolved into fields of study for both business professionals and academics–semiotics from academic roots, user experience from business, and HCI from a mix of both. Many thinkers have tackled the subject of semiotics and the digital experience with impressive rigor, but few have applied their insights to a strategic business setting. As user experience and interface designers focus on delivering comprehensive documentation to their clients, there is a disconnect between business objectives and how the proposed design speaks through its interface.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can define “interface” as anything that filters information and re-presents it in a meaningful way. The implications of such a broad definition are that the interface is something that both provides access and mediates information. As such, this interface is an active force and influential factor in the relationship between objects and their representations.

In the results-focused world of user experience and interface design, it is easy to forget the nuances of meaning amidst interface and experience. The end goals of user experience and interface design are to create a means by which users of software can access information in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and serves the objectives of the software creators (or a brand). In certain cases, these two objectives can conflict with one anther.

Take for example a financial services company whose audience includes a segment with particular interest in travel. They are older, retired people with the leisure time and money to take vacations around the world. The brand’s website is focused mostly on product offerings, which are of fleeting importance if they are not linked to core audience interests. There is a conflict between the business, which wants to sell products, and this audience segment, who want to know how best to allocate funds to leisure activities. The company needs a way to communicate with its audience in a way that is meaningful for them, within the context of their interests. This is a semiotic challenge, but brands seldom think about business problems in terms of meaning production.

The company might go about solving the problem by adding some travel information on their website, writing a couple blog posts on popular travel destinations, and starting to talk about travel on Facebook. This approach is short-sighted, specifically because it does not consider is the entirety of the digital experience. It changes the interface at a few touch points but fails to positively affect the more wide-ranging brand interaction in a way that an approach informed by semiotics might. Perhaps a better approach would be to reframe certain products within the context of travel and leisure, without specific attention to a particular channel. The difference is that the second approach is integrated into all the brand’s interfaces; it’s a systemic change rather than a manipulation of limited touch points.

I see the main benefits semiotics can provide in a business setting residing in this idea of contextual manipulation. Business and design problems are rarely so singular and isolated to warrant limited solutions; however, at the same time, companies are hesitant to entertain systemic changes because of budgetary reasons or the anxiety caused by thinking about their brand as a constantly evolving entity. Professionals who are influenced by semiotics should work to better establish a theoretical framework that makes sense to clients and can be executed in a business setting. They should elucidate how their colleagues are actually semioticians, even if they don’t articulate it or even know it. The first step toward incorporating semiotics into a business setting is to strip away its esoteric qualities.

This topic will be explored further in a forthcoming essay

 © Thomas Wendt 2012

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The death of dubstep

Monday, April 30th, 2012

I’m not an expert on dubstep, but I've encountered it out and about, and it’s been an enjoyable romp… but now I hear it’s dead.

Why? Because dub has hit the mainstream, and we know this because dubstep’s darker, discordant, bass-heavy electronica sound showed up a few months ago in advertising for Resident Evil, McDonalds… and Weetabix, of all brands. This represents a key transformation of dub style that’s been resented in some quarters- Twitter and the blogosphere have lit up with fury—dubstep is dead! DEAD I tell you!

Of course, the question is, why does an association with some mainstream brands= death for the dub sound, rather than an association with dubstep= freshness for brand executions?

Though the use of dubstep in a mainstream venue such as advertising can feel troubling to fans because it challenges subcultural ownership of the sound, this is also about the specific brands with which dubstep is being associated.

Resident Evil – well, yes. The connections between gamer culture, tech, utopia, and darkness (thus the ever-present threat of dystopia that comes with surges of innovation and technology) are all there and fit dubstep’s dark electronic sound.

But McDonalds? Weetabix? Using dubstep to represent these brands is a classic example of inverting key brand codes to disrupt and redirect consumer expectation. Each brand has varying levels of success with this approach.

McDonalds fails to bridge the gap between brand and sound

Despite their current call for adults to 'revolt and embrace lunch again', the core McDonalds brand is broadly defined by the promise of consistency, and satisfaction of simple, at times childlike pleasures and expectations. In the ad, this is manifested via easily recognizable components- a skater park shot with crystalline clarity on a bright day, and two young guys just hanging out and enjoying their Chicken McBites.

But, this execution also features a dubby remix of the McDonald’s jingle and the two guys (Bones and Aaron- ‘extreme street dance’ celebrities) in a playful dance battle over the box of McBites. The dubby McDonalds jingle sounds somewhat McDonalds, somewhat not. The ‘extreme street dance’ style can only be described as making the body move in ways that don’t seem possible for human beings- again, familiar, but different. Both elements bring an air of the extraordinary and unexpectedness to the execution and McDonalds.

But the thing is, these two components are presented as normal in this light, bright McDonald’s world, despite their unexpectedness. Even when it’s shown that the McBites inspire the street fight (essentially, the product making consumers do extraordinary things, catalyzed by the presumed deliciousness of the McBites), there is only a tenuous conceptual bridge for the viewer.

By including these elements as just another everyday aspect of brand, the ad drives cognitive dissonance. How does the multi-textured dub sound and spectacle of Bones and Aaron moving their bodies into eerily impossible contortions correlate to the home of the Happy Meal or even Chicken McBites’ ‘great homestyle flavor’? Bones and Aaron are ‘home grown’ in a sense, self-made street performers known to a specific youth target- but since street dance is already their thing, the premise of the ‘product as catalyst’ falls down.

Weetabix lets the new sound create a new world

In contrast, Weetabix maintains break-through, and skirts the dissonance caused by code inversion by framing out the dubstep moment into a more complete space of fantasy and performance facilitated by the brand.

Here, dub is used to signal a shift from the real to the unreal.  Framing, light quality, over-the top editing and the animated dancing teddy-bear crew make it clear that we’re viewing an alternate space where the rules are different and little girls dubstep powerfully. The execution is free to expose and explore new and interesting terrain for the brand (particularly energy, exuberance, joyful play), and celebrates dubstep along the way. The result broadens, rather than directly challenges brand expectations- since it’s acknowledged that there isn’t really a relationship between Weetabix and dub, but one is being created.

I do think there’s a thought and lesson for brands here- understand the bounds of brand stretch, even in the case of code inversion – don’t ‘kill’ culture –  find a way to leverage it that makes sense for the brand.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

Vehicle body art

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

Vehicles on Indian roads talk. Almost every vehicle is embellished either with images on the body or with accessories within. There is  general disapproval for the plain vanilla factory made look. It is a rather inviting tabula rasa on which story of one’s identity must be etched. After all, buying a car is a milestone and historically it does mark the class transition from belonging to the plebian crowds who access public transport to becoming somebody who can afford their own private means. The nature of the images and the embellishment do tell you many stories. Stories about the life journey of the owner; how they got there and what they feel about it. How space is shared or rather grabbed on the road can be read as a mini snapshot of the class dynamics of this society.

I will pick up two sets of vehicles and two popular images and embellishments typical to them. Privately owned cabs which are leased out to the driver and the mid range sedan which are favored by those who have recently risen above the harried middle class.

 Privately owned cabs for all practical purposes belong to the driver who works them hard so that he can have money left over after paying the daily lease sum and the fuel & maintenance costs. While on the face of it he can pull off a certain amount of status & posturing within his community about practically being the owner, the joy runs a bit shallow. He finds himself working harder & harder to beat the terms of the lease and save himself a respectable income. This pseudo ownership is nothing but a cuckold. The vehicle being experienced as a cheating girlfriend rings true at many levels. In a society where ‘ownership’ of a heavily bedecked woman lends status gives further credence to this parallel. Each cab is lovingly decorated with colorful tinselly frills and the stickers with sad romantic couplets complete the story of the driver being the jilted lover – all because he spends such long hours on the road. A pair of heavily made up blue eyes painted at the rear of the vehicle is significant at many levels. It is blue signifying the much desired white woman fantasy complete with all its loose morality associations. It is placed at the rear where it is looking on at the vehicle behind – at the ‘other’. The eyes seem to guard the rear alluding somewhere to the vulnerability experienced on the road. Is it the vulnerability of the pretender?

In contrast the theme of embellishment of the sedan alludes to the sense of snug security of those who have just arrived. The car is a protected cocoon, sealed off with its rolled up windows & tinted glasses warding off unwanted eyes looking in. Comforting softness of this world is further accentuated by velvet cushions and soft toys placed on the parcel tray, looking out at the world through the rear windscreen as though mocking the sweat, dust and grime of the road. It mimics the untouched innocence and hyperbolic snugness of the nursery.

When these worlds come together, predictably there is mayhem which is known as Indian road traffic; also known as the most dangerous sport in the world! [Apparently it is drawing visitors from round the world as an extreme sport.] When the soft, pink cushioned world of the sedan mocks the violated fantasy of class transition, testosterone is bound to flow. The rash and aggressive driving of the overworked cabs in turn mocks the fragility of the cushion & soft toy brigade. And the troubled co existence of the classes and masses that have been denied transition continues.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Semiofest 2012

Monday, April 16th, 2012

The inaugural Semiofest will be taking place on 25th and 26th May in Westbourne Studios London; it is being organized on a shoestring budget and has been variously billed as an experimental learning event, symposium, swap meet for semioticians.

I believe that Semiofest, “a celebration of semiotic thinking”, is not a radical idea, it is simply an idea whose time has come…The key to this from my perspective is to have an informal space to share and celebrate semiotic thinking. My observation would be that not only does commercial semiotics have no formal representation but that there is a gap between applied marketing semiotics which is usually hidden and proprietary and academic semiotics which in print and at a conference is usually geared towards rehearsing the validity of a theory and name checking hallowed academic authorities.

Semiofest is first of all created to fill this gap, to give a formal space to commercial applied semiotics across the gamut of its applications from design to social media.

The ethos behind Semiofest is essentially the same as that behind the Semiotic Thinking Group on Linked In. the STG was launched with no fanfare and a rather dodgy logo in March 2010. From inauspicious beginnings it has since grown to a group of over 1200 members hosting lively debates on the meaning of Britishness, the latest Cadbury’s ad, the difference between premium and luxury codes, online social networks and hidden signs on Facebook. It is a group comprised of an eclectic cohort of market researchers, academics, brand consultants, students and hobbyists. 

The Semiotic Thinking Group was set up to share idea about semiotics, to network and start to build a bit of esprit de corps amongst semiotics practitioners. The most common posts seem to be aimed at debating ideas, sourcing strategic partners in obscure markets and posting content, either texts or blog posts for comment. Several practitioners have messaged me privately to praise the quality of conversations on the STG and to say that it is the most zestful and exciting group they belong to.

The germ of Semiofest was planted when a Canadian collaborator Charles Leech mailed me to say that he felt that his semiotic arsenal needed updating, that he did not know where to go to feed his mind and why didn’t we do some kind of meet up. I agreed it was a natural progression to create a physical manifestation of a successful online community. I was volunteered help by an informal organizing committee of collaborators from LinkedIn: primarily Hamsini Shivakumar, Lucia Neva, Kishore Budha and Sandra Mardin. We posted a short announcement of intention with invitation to express interest back in June 2011 and we got an immediate and enthusiastic response. We quickly received up to 70 ticket purchases on Event Brite and then set up the website and have been receiving bookings since over Paypal.

\At the time of writing we have over 20 presentations planned – one being done remotely from Singapore, as well as over 50 tickets sold for the event. We have participants coming in from Brazil, Japan, Estonia, Australia, North America and all over Europe. Presentations are varied and represent the cutting edge of the field. They are on topics from text mining to design rhetoric to advertising to the semantic web. We have two keynote speakers, a co-creation slot and even some semiotic art.

The other important facet is the educational halo that the event will hopefully create.

We plan to post up presentations and disseminate learning post event through the semiofest.com site. Inaugural Semiofest in London 2012 is an experimental event. We do not know how it will end up going but we are confident that it will give those attending a chance to enrich their perspectives, network and to enjoy a fun event.

We have planned for it to be a convivial event with a Cultural Programme in the evening and hopefully the London weather will deliver balmy summer evenings.

We still have a few tickets left so if the above sounds of interest you should quickly go to semiofest.com, go to Payment page and claim your ticket to this special event.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

We interrupt this prose…

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The trend for poetry in British advertising isn’t going away. It bubbled up a couple of years ago, with the McDonald’s ‘Just passing by’ ad, and the Pete Postlethwaite-voiced script for Cathedral City cheddar. Along with ads by Waitrose, the AA and Centre Parcs, this caused extensive soul-searching at the time about whether this was debasing a great art, or a welcome way to popularise the medium.

More recently, we’ve had an Ode to an Iceland Mum:


 

A poem on Premier Inns:

 

And a particularly challenging piece from Santander:

The adverts vary in quality, but it’s interesting to reflect on why poetry, at least in the judgement of these advertisers, fits with the commercial imperative.

One of the reasons must be its disruptive effect. A working definition of poetry could be ‘disrupted prose’. Which is to say, language where the conventional prosaic flow from one clause to the next is disrupted by formal elements: rhyme, rhythm, wordplay and a heightened awareness of the sound and shape that words make. Of course, there are some writers who deliberately challenge this definition, pushing the boundaries of prose to breaking point, or writing prose poems that exhibit none of the qualities normally associated with poetry. But such forms draw their power from the expectation they’re subverting.

The disruptive nature of poetry is a useful tool for advertisers, always keen to jolt a passive audience into paying attention. I’ve noticed it myself while tapping away on the laptop with the TV on in the background. You’re aware of the usual burble of commercial messages during the ad breaks, but when that burble turns into poetry, a different part of your brain responds. Despite yourself, you start anticipating the next rhyme or subconsciously bouncing along to the rhythm.

Which isn’t to say these ads are either enjoyable or effective. The Iceland and Premier Inn ads work well enough on their own terms, albeit in a fairly conventional way. The Santander ad disrupts in an unwelcome way, like someone prodding you repeatedly with their finger.

There is a craft to writing these advertising poems, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. A Wordsworth or Byron doesn’t have to worry about ticking off various parts of the target demographic, or covering off key selling points. But the commercial writer does, and too often it shows.

Get it right and a poem can have an unusually powerful effect. Moving a step away from advertising, UK satirist Charlie Brooker recently filmed an extended rant to camera about Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. (The paper was complaining of being targeted by a witch hunt, apparently not realising the irony.)

The rant would be funny enough in prose, but Charlie Brooker – uncharacteristically for him – chose to cast it in poetry.

The sheer craft is something to admire, often relying on an unexpected rhyme rather than the obvious choice – a lesson the Premier Inn and Iceland writers could usefully learn. But casting the rant in poetry also elevates it into something more than a funny piece to camera. It becomes a self-contained piece of performance art, which predictably ‘went viral’ on Twitter and YouTube.

Again, this points to the power of the poem – its origins in oral tradition suggest that it has always been a ‘viral’ form, explicitly designed to make language more memorable and shareable. Advertisers have long understood the mnemonic power of rhythm and rhyme when it comes to the shorter form: slogans and jingles. Such slogans have gone out of fashion, seen as being crass and unsophisticated. But extending the practice into a full-length script is the acceptable modern-day alternative.

RKCR/Y&R, the agency behind the Premier Inn ad, explain on their website that they chose the poetic approach because of its power to make a ‘deeper emotional connection’. It appears that this is where poetry now sits in the popular imagination – a form of language to which we turn in times of emotional need: weddings, funerals and… selling mid-market hotel rooms. Like it or not, I suspect the trend will be with us for a while.

© Nick Asbury 2012

 

Read more from Nick on the blog of his creative partnership Asbury & Asbury.
 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Escape the Map

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

 

There's always been something slightly sinister to Google Street View and it isn't just the surveillance aspect. Perhaps it is the perpetually sunny sky (Street View vehicles cannot operate in the rain) or maybe the navigation commands that never quite feel intuitive. Google Street View makes no effort to replicate the motion of how we typically experience the city — on foot or by car. A mouse click to the arrows on the ground jerks you forward at a distance far longer than the average stride. With a gravity of its own, impossible weather, and a population of spectral faceless beings — blurred to protect their identities — it is not a world anyone would ever like to live inside.

Maybe your image exists in Google Street View already: blurred and frozen in time. "We call them echoes," says the mysterious woman in Escape the Map, the interactive video produced by Mercedes-Benz. She warns that "time works differently here" — you might find an image of yourself from four days or four years ago… but "relax."

In the film, you are navigating a vehicle through a representation of Hong Kong on Google Street View. The woman — Marie — has just removed a mask that disguised her to look like the other blurry-face people outside. Now she sits in the passenger seat, offering instructions to "escape the map." You risk getting captured by the camera, which will turn you into one of the hopeless blurred people on the streets — faceless and trapped in motion like the victims of Pompeii. Google Street View is never named, but director Carl Erik Rinsch (soon to make his feature film debut with 47 Ronin) exploits all its familiar quirks. A character appears badly rendered and you instructed to "put him together" to advance. Giant red pins that look like Google Map markers come crashing from the sky.

Google Street View could be a geospatial corollary to the Uncanny Valley hypothesis (which suggests that as artificial life grows more lifelike, it also seems eerier, more "uncanny"). In the Mercedes-Benz making-of video, the team explains how they mimicked Street View's aggressive navigation and used green screens to replicate its world. Interestingly, they point out the final touch was to "recreate the harsh midday light of the application." How ironic that advanced technology was employed to create the appearance of sunshine in Google Street View. It is unreality presented on a computer screen as the world outside our window.

 

 © Joanne McNeil 2012

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Biking displaced

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

 

‘Roadies’ is a reality show running into its ninth season in India.  Any show that runs into its ninth season has enormous mass appeal and this one has got youth cult status. It started with a bunch of boys doing tough ‘tasks’ involving much physical endurance, hitting the road on their bikes and essentially surviving physical odds as well as political challenges of group dynamics.  It is built on the classic ingredients of masculine appeal which cuts across every adolescent or middle aged man’s fantasy of biking, road trip, tough ruggedness and brawn.

What provides the twist in an otherwise timeless tale is the personality of the host and creator of the show – Raghu. His process of screening and audition to select contestants for this reality show seems to be close to what in India is called ‘ragging’ and in some other cultures is called ‘hazing’. The aspirants go through, besides a group discussion and elaborate form filling, a personal interview.  Raghu – short tempered, volatile, politically irreverent and liberated from any kind of political correctness that being on television demands – puts the aspirants through hell. He zeros in on their weaknesses, false selves, paltry defensiveness and posturing and proceeds to dismantle them ruthlessly in a bid to reveal their ‘true’ selves. Physical challenges such as doing knuckle push ups or head stands are employed to take the aspirants out of their comfort zone in order to break down facades.

The intriguing bit is why are there thousands of young people in every city lining up to go through this experience which for most ends up being public humiliation on national television? They want to go through this and for most it is a test by fire that they want to go through; expecting a stronger and perhaps a ‘real man’ emerging at the end of this experience. They want to be judged and want Raghu’s verdict on who they are and what they are worth.

Raghu does not come across as a bully but more as a tough father delivering home truths intended to chisel and bring out the real man. Clearly this brand of parenting which is directive, ruthlessly disciplining and offering a certain amount of authoritative resistance that an adolescent can go up against and resolve his final bits of identity formation which have gone missing. Obviously traditional patriarchs are being missed by the kids. They have nothing to go up against and test themselves and the limits. Is there an overdose of non-directive, organic ‘discover for yourself’ feminine nurturance which does not make enough use of parental authority?

When ‘ragging’ or ‘hazing’ are experienced as rites of passage; what does it say about this generation’s life experiences? They have to search far and wide for a piece of resistance against which they can sharpen their identity and sadly this is the defining and toughest experience of their lives. This reality show has some very real responsibilities. The host is the guiding light and fills in for fearless authority figures while a staged road trip is a simulated coming of age experience for a whole generation.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Luxury: a journey of discovery?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

I recently watched a lengthy spot for Cartier, 'L'Odysee de Cartier, that made me consider what luxury brands are trying to tell us today. 

In the Cartier piece, a leopard/panther avatar breaks its carapace of diamonds, journeys through time and space, and explores a magical, bejeweled world. This world is marked by a seemingly omniscient and global view of Cartier’s past: horse drawn carriages, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal (balanced on an elephant’s back), vintage airplanes, and iconic French architecture. Interestingly, these spaces are populated with jeweled exotic animals- magical living entities hidden from common sight. The leopard’s tour of these spectacles is drawn together in a loose narrative ending in communion with a woman gowned in red. She strokes the leopard, and diamonds gleam where her hand has left its fur. They’re old friends, it seems, even lovers.

But ultimately, what does all this tell us about the world of Cartier? This world is defined by selective provenance; it claims cultural authority (to say what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) from a mythologized history of exotic lands and treasures drawn from both mysterious natural phenomena and the heart of culture. Importantly, it’s a place where the unknown, secret life of these things is revealed to those in the know.

In this world, luxury is the experience of discovery driven by a specific kind of knowledge. This knowledge is presented as secret knowledge, and the journey to discover these things a heroic and even sacred one (the musical theme has a hand in this, as the tremulous violins in the beginning tell me to anticipate something revealed, the mournful cello later underlines the arduousness of this journey, followed by a children’s choir soaring above).

And, what’s the role of the consumer in relationship to Cartier? Through Cartier, the luxury consumer is cast as a cultured explorer, a person who enjoys confirmation and articulation of their particular strain of cultural capital, but also strives to transcend a conventional understanding of these things. However it is really more ‘armchair explorer’ – the consumer is not necessarily an intimate, the leopard roams alone (despite its affection for the lady in red).

The sheer grandeur of the Cartier spot (one cannot ignore the grand format brand statement) reminded me of another spot by Louis Vuitton launched a while back, ‘The Spirit of Travel.’ In deep contrast to Cartier, the LV piece locates LV’s authority (to establish what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) in the brand’s ability to articulate the subjective nature of discovery. Also shifting through global time and space, LV represents its world through fine details: the glow of light through the pages of a book, the shimmer on a water’s edge, fog flowing over an ‘Asian’ waterway- all through impressionistic photography implying individual sensory experience. Here, sensory and personal experience clearly trumps externally constructed experience and spectacle (though of course it can be argued that subjectivity at this level is still just another trope, box and definition to be checked off).

So what’s luxury in the world of LV? Being able to discover your moment ‘in the moment.’ Importantly, LV tells us quite directly that it’s an experience of discovery driven by self-knowledge. Here, the LV consumer is a devotee to this pilgrimage and escape into self. 

Both Cartier and LV instruct luxury consumers on the importance and nature of discovery and how to, well, discover it. Despite its ‘wild’ leopard avatar, Cartier is more the starry eyed curator at the Louvre, lifting the curtain just a bit for a special glimpse of wonder. In comparison, LV is a spiritual guide, a more intimate relationship to consumers overall.

But this is not to say there aren’t real commonalities here- each brand highlights a particularly western (post-colonial) politic of desire- since part of this ’journey’ is an exotic experience that speaks to the ‘foreign,’ the strange and other. 

And, ultimately, both tap into fairly residual themes (the ‘cultured’ connoisseur and imaginative adventurer, the spiritual-Buddha traveler) and leverage the journey metaphor to frame a foundational perspective on luxury present within contemporary cultural consciousness. Both brands tell us that luxury is part of a noble and meaningful adventure, and that discovery- wonderful, fleeting, and rare- is an emotional space attainable through each brand’s distinct exploratory path.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

 

 

 

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

A bag is a bag is a bag

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Handbags are mysterious to men and profane to their mistresses. They are an accessory for almost every woman, whether young or matured, Christian or Buddhist, rich or poor, modern or conservative.  They are universal and at the same time very personal, even intimate. Peeping in one’s bag or borrowing might be acceptable but not encouraged and only trusted friends and close relatives are allowed to do so, mostly under the owner’s control. Handbags are powerful icons and heroines of modern times stand behind ‘IT bags’ as godmother.

Why are handbags so important?

Many women strongly identify with her handbag and some develop an almost symbiotic relationship with the bag and its content. Others have a more playful and flirtatious relationship with it. They change their leather or linen companion according to season, occasions or mood. The bag bond can be born when falling in love at first sight of blinking sequin or playful fringes or result from a more rational strategy of comparing sizes, materials and styles.

Certain items such as keys, purses and care products can be found in almost every bag, other personal items such as breast implants or a fruit knife might be a surprise to an indiscreet viewer. A bag is a bag but is also unique at the same time: “My bag reflects who I am and what is important to me.” A bag can match your dress – but first of all it matches yourself. Bag owners can be characterised regarding what their bag contains inside and what they express outside, what a bag tells about their personality and their social identity.

The ‘mistress of the bag’ is in a power position and in control of her bag and its content. She highlights the non-emotional character of her relationship with the bag and treats her bag as her property that often feels neglected or even maltreated. She doesn’t want to compromise and demands a lot: ““I like to be in control and must admit that I treat my bag like a slave: it’s always with me and has to do what I want it to”.

The ‘expressive hedonist’ enjoys her ownership of (often many) bags. The bag represents her style and fashion consciousness – whether in the form of prestigious luxury shoppers or the latest must-have bags. She feels reassured and entertained through her steady companion: “One may understand who I am from both my bag and by its contents. My bag is the mirror of myself”.

The ‘protective dependent’ has a strong and very emotional relationship with her bag.  She is in need of comfort and security. Her bag looks individualised, caring and exciting from the outside and often chaotic in the inside caused by various layers of more or less helpful tools, notes, souvenirs and good luck charmers required to be next to her at all times: “If my bag gets lost my world would tremble.”

The ‘capricious passionate’ wants her bag to make her happy and light-hearted. She has a rather flirtatious relationship with her handbag although she might be looking for ‘real love’ in her very heart. She can fancy the pink patent leather shopper during the day and the golden clutch in the evening: “I bought this bag because it makes me feel good”.

Every bag has its own character and reflects the character of its owner. A bag is nothing less than a practical container filled with helpful tools and personal treasures and a mobile miniature version of a woman’s world at the same time. The bag is the steady companion who never lets you down, supports you to deal with any eventuality and allows you to either hide or to make you noticed. No wonder women can’t do without it. 

 © Ute Rademacher 2012

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

 

There are many different coding schemes to collect and discern semiotics, and included in that is my METTA method created as part of my research on nonverbal communication. You can decide the value of METTA after reading [here]. As important as a coding scheme is, I have yet to find one that is complete and encompasses the entire semiosphere (the ‘signs’ that are all around us) that at the same time is not overbearing and time consuming. 

Sure, for example, METTA helps identify all the nonverbal signs but even this is incomplete for a thorough analysis when used solely for denoting specific (digital) or variations (analog) of nonverbal cues and elements. Simply denoting the sign, a gesture for example, is a start but by no means an end. The connotation of the sign, the gesture in this case, is necessary for a full understanding. Luckily for me, Jakobson is in my corner with this as he states, “It is not enough to know the code in order to grasp the message… you need to know the context” (Chandler 2002, 182).

The 3 C’s compliments the METTA method the study of semiotics and nonverbal communication. The 3 C’s represents Clusters, Congruence, and Context. Combining this analysis along with other coding such as Morris’s Model (as discussed here) or METTA will help a semiotician understand all nonverbal signs that are present during an interact.

Clusters: Although identifying, or denoting, individual nonverbal signs is important, realizing they do occur in a vacuum and contrastly exist in conjuction with other nonverbal signs contributes to a proper analysis. An example includes determining someone is uncomfortable not solely on lack of eye contact but in addition the shoulders are slumped, the person is fidgeting with their wedding ring, and uttering repeated “umms” while answering a question.

Congruence: Something important for people interested in the semiotics of nonverbal communication is the words spoken. Yes, nonverbal communication research explores the role of all the various nonverbal elements and cues but it does not do so at the expense of the verbal content. Congruence reminds the semiotician to consider the nonverbal actions and elements along with the words being spoken. 

An example of congruence is stating you are willing to help someone with an assignment and you move your seat closer to them to look over the work they had already done. Here, your words of offering assistance are congruent with your movement.

An example of incongruence is when asking someone if they are upset and they respond “I’m fine,” however their statment is in a sharp, quick tone; their brows are tense as are they lips; while their arms are crossed across their chest. 

Do you think they are “fine”? 

Most of us have heard the statement that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, right (read more on this here)? It is true, however in certain situations. It it is referring to situations like the example I just provided- where the spoken words are not congruent with the person’s nonverbal actions. In situations like these, the nonverbal actions consistently tend to be more truthful. 

Context: The context involves the environment the interaction is taking place as well as the history between the people, and the power structure. Context can give the same gesture, say finger pointing two completely different meanings. In one context, it can be part of anger or scolding, while in another it can represent acknowledging someone. See the photo below and I would bet, regardless of culture, you can differentiate between the two.

The 3 C’s of nonverbal communication helps provide a research and anyone who is interested understanding nonverbal communication the meaning and importance of nonverbal cues and elements. It helps prevents premature and incorrect conclusions being made as it allows you to look at all the ‘parts’ and see a more accurate ‘whole.’ 

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Posted in Americas, Australasia, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semionaut Open House

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

 

Our editorial and procurement teams, if you hadn’t noticed, are on prolonged missions to other galaxies. So there begins forthwith here right now a kind of Semionaut Carnaval or free-style era. What our grandfathers would have called ‘unplugged’. Semionaut speaking in tongues. Interactive, co-creational, and so on…

Here’s what we’re looking for:

• First-timers who would like to submit short pieces, especially people from anywhere working in (could be graduate?) study touching on popular culture, cultural change generally, brand worlds, communication. A lot of people who make a living from commercial semiotics read Semionaut so it’s a great shop window in which to get some recognition (if you so wish – we’re not making ideological assumptions here – cultural critique is also hugely welcome!)

• More relaxed spontaneous pieces from regular contributors: fly a kite, get angry, put up half an idea looking for a partner thought to be friends with or maybe more…

• Still in Globish English as language of reference please, but we are withdrawing the editorial hand for this period of festivity so we get a greater genuine diversity of Globish English and her various hybrids and mash-ups as she is improvised today.

• Anything goes basically – we will apply a light touch regulative hand only in the case of deliberate offence, illegality or anything that will get us personally visited by drones despatched by the Axis of Evil or the Axis of the Naturally and Self-Evidently Good Guys.

• We will just ask you to sign a declaration of the originality of the material you send us and taking legal accountability for the views expressed

• We publish pieces under 800 words or so, with one visual illustration – for which please give us copyright details we can attribute (or at least a source). We have a strict editorial policy of immediately taking down on request any copyright material the owner objects to being used on Semionaut.

• So send them flying our way – Word documents are best for us with illustrations separate rather than in the document – send to editorial@semionaut.net

• Also include please a head/face photograph of yourself and a maximum 80 word biography

Semionaut is read by Slavoj Zizek, the human resources departments of major corporations & media organisations, all the big advertising, design and brand strategy agencies. And the Queen of England.

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Print is dead, long live magazines!

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

 

We all know print is in decline and as a medium it is unsustainable.

However, these days the business of newspaper publishing comprises print, web and apps, and it is a tale of two trends. Whilst the US and Europe are experiencing a decline, the emerging markets are showing signs of growth with LatAm expecting the largest increase of 4.7% over the next 4 years. The burgeoning free newspaper market is also seeing growth in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.

Talking of free, paywalls, or ‘value gateways’ as News International calls them to sweeten the pill, haven’t proved to be the most successful model for online news as people expect their information from the internet to be free

But interestingly people do expect to pay for their mobile sources of information and entertainment. Apps like Flipboard aggregate news from multiple publishers where you can build your own ‘news playlists’. Apple has launched Newsstand on the iOS 5 (although typically they retain all the data). The new Facebook apps allow publishers to be exposed to a wider audience via exposure in the Ticker and on your newsfeed; The Guardian app gets over 1 million page views a day from Facebook. With the increase of information sharing editors or curators are being superseded by friends or ‘people like you’.

Ever since Esquire launched its Augmented Reality enabled edition 2 years ago, magazines have been looking for different ways to engage their readers on multi platforms by innovating and diversifying their offer.

Vice started life 17 years ago as a niche free magazine in Canada and now has over 30 local editions, it runs an international creative agency, an IPTV channel and even a pub! The Reader’s Digest meanwhile makes only 20% out of actual publishing – the rest is from financial & other services. Meanwhile in China, Vogue and local women’s fashion glossy Raili regularly publish editions of 350 pages and have even created TV shows.

Contract and niche magazine publishing are thriving. British photographer Rankin has just launched a new bi-annual, Hunger, whilst ‘We Love Pop’ is a new title from Egmont. Even Conde Nast’s Style.com has launched in print and the BBC has just sold all their titles to a Venture Capitalist so business can’t be all bad.

Magazines are often regarded as an indulgence, a private time away from the glare of the screen. But there’s another reason why magazines may survive. Increased micro-targeting online from both editors and advertisers doesn’t allow for serendipity – as this respondent (IPSOS 2011) research recognises:

 “with magazines, you might stumble across an interesting article or an amazing image that you wouldn’t have seen online”

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, an internet advocate, agrees that the internet doesn’t match the ability of printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. This presents an interesting argument in defence of ‘stumbling across’ the printed page.

Ultimately, the media owners who survive will be those who offer a unique service to brands, enabling them reach their discrete communities of loyal readers. With insights into their readers, publishers and brands can partner to co-create impactful content with the resources of editorial and in-house creative teams.

© Jo Peters 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

In the previous article on Hermes, starting with cultural origins in ancient times, I took note of the figure of the deity as a channel of communication and as a message. Here I want to focus on more recent times and ‘culture capital’ – specifically how marketing and advertising scoop up ready-to-use forms from history and universally recognised traditions as well as from local legends and myths in order to connect stories and symbols with their products (goods/services) and in such a way as to grab the attention of the potential consumers. This is clear demonstration of a principle, defined by Russian semiologist Yuri Lotman, who maintains that ‘old texts’, which circulate in culture, are there to be appropriated in terms of what exists on the surface and then refreshed by means of new codes.  

In the case of Hermes, on the basis of some limited research (which we invite Semionaut readers to supplement) on uses of the name and figure in modern trade and advertising,  it appears that in the mass consciousness in the most cases the deity remains the one who rapidly delivers messages and objects from one point to another. His most usual physical attribute – the wings (whether on his hat or sandals) is the most exploited symbol, preferred among the shipping and logistic companies. In Bulgaria we note a small difference, maybe because we here are close to the Hermes’s area of origin and operation, in that we see his attributes and name incorporated into tourist agencies and one well-known publishing house. Obviously for the locals the deity also has meaning of transfer.

But there are some curious exceptions, for example the use of the caduceus (Hermes’s sceptre) and serpents in logos as a reference to the medicinal skills of the Greek god. There is also one case from the not too distant past where a famous typewriter brand was named ‘Hermes’, clearly alluding to the god’s connection model with the invention of writing. Like the use of his name of publishing house this has a connection with transfer of knowledge and wisdom by means of some kind of medium – language and books. In a sense, time is a medium as well and as we saw in the earlier piece, time and space are mixed together when Hermes does what he does – moreover, he is among the immortals and his actions are set in the mythologically timeless.  

In contrast with all these relatively easily decodable meaning, among the richest and most eloquent examples for the use of this mythologeme in its full brilliance remains the name of the French luxury Hermès. This company was established in 1837 by Thierry Hermés and is today one of the major players in the fashion and luxury business alongside such brands as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The Hermès offer includes perfumes, jewelry and various accessories but the main products which bring the fame of the company are bags and sandals. As we might presume, the brand;’s communication deliberately emphasizes the connection between these products and the deeds of Hermes as messenger wearing winged sandals, one of whose main attributes is a bag. From this point we could decide that the company does not count only on the coincidence in the names of its founder and the one of the Greek deity. Moreover, in the creation of the visual identity (predominantly in its logo) Hermès has always been prepared to access tangentially other symbolic accoutrements of the deity. A historical execution of the logo (above), for example, puts the main element – a cab with one horse in front of it – above two images of the caduceus (placed on the left and on the right side, with wings and interlaced serpents added). In this way we have an opportunity to observe the mythology in action – in new context but with the message adapted to the perceptions of a contemporary consumer audience.   

We would love to hear comments below about any other variations on this broader theme of how Hermes symbolism has been and is deployed by brands.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Blue: the grown-up face of green concerns

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 

How best to banish those January blues? By tackling the problem head-on, perhaps, with a brief note on the semiotics of colour.

A recent article in The Economist makes a pertinent observation about the motor industry’s colour of choice when communicating its green credentials – isn’t it interesting that it’s not, well, green? Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and (most notably in the UK at least) Volkswagen all favour blue when it comes to matters environmental.

The colour blue has about as many direct and associative meanings as it has shades, but in the commercial world at least, one thing is clear – when it comes to corporate identity, blue is a safe bet. Among other things, it lends gravitas and austerity to Barclays and a slew of financial services brands; it connotes cool, clear thinking at IBM; and it has become the de facto colour of social networking thanks to its adoption by Facebook and Twitter. In combination, these codes help elevate the colour blue to a potent signifier of collaborative professionalism – what organisation would not want to project that about itself?

A recent brand renaming exercise at a previous agency saw a client spend tens of thousands of pounds over several rounds of research, only to pull the plug, resolving instead to “just stick the existing name in blue”. Blue, it seems, was the only thing that everyone could agree on – when making the right decision seems hard, choosing blue at least mitigates against making the wrong one. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, and neither did the guy who chose to write the logo in blue.

Here in the UK, boardroom scenes in the TV series The Apprentice are colour graded to enhance blueness, presumably in the hope of encouraging audiences to take more seriously ‘Captain of Industry’ Lord Sugar and his pageant of hapless wannabes. Watching the show won’t teach you much about making your way in the workplace, but it will leave you in little doubt that Blue Is The Colour Of Business.

When powerful commercial codes of blueness are yoked to the elemental associations of pale blue with the life-giving forces of water and sky, it is clear why blue should become an irresistible choice for organisations keen to demonstrate that they are serious about getting green. Perhaps the shift to blue is also a belated sign of a cultural change that has been underway for many years. The green movement is growing up: no longer the reserve of a niche of dedicated ‘cabbage patch’ activists, it is now big business, with major organisations increasingly embracing it as a core element in sustainable strategy.

Source: http://thinkblue.volkswagen.com/blue_projects/blue_symphony

 © Tom Lilley 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

6 Theses on Pinkification

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

 

Don't know if you’ve noticed but pink is everywhere in the semiosphere at the moment. There is a glut of lurid slap on every merchandising surface. It hides in typography with grey blue tints and appears as blocks of background colour.

Here are 6 theses on pink:

1.    Pink is the new orange. If the 1990s heralded Orange as the colour of the growth decade and a shorthand for progressive premium quality, is pink the more knowing and complicated hue for an era of sluggish consumption, a less optimistic more jaded shade of the future? Are we following Japan where pink has been the colour of kawaii in a country in hock to saccharine tweeness and where femininity combines the soft mothering and sexualized within broadly the same colour palette?

2.    Pink is the new solicitude. The colour has become a lazy shorthand for cordiality and attunement to customers. It says: ’We are clued in and brand-conscious’. Interesting for me in this context is the dramatic shift from red to bright pink in “For sale” signs in Central London for the post Christmas sales, almost as if the frequency with which struggling retailers place items on discount makes the less shrill and aggressive pink more apt. Pink, shorn of purely girly connotations, is in a very strong position as a default colour; it has arrogated to itself a whole range of communicative contexts. If we use the Roman Jacobson communicative functions framework, currently pink seems to have a footprint that covers the referential (to all the pink connotations of femininity), the conative (hedonistic prodding) and the emotive (the desire to be playful on the part of the communicating entity). It is also very phatic (gregarious contact with the viewer) holding the attention.

3.    Pink is infinitely adaptable. Pink bends the communication context to its corrosive will. It is the dominant colour for the 2012 Olympics where it is used as a neon substitute to signify the electrifying, youthful energy. It is used in other government communications where it would have been frowned upon in previous years, notably in Community Alcohol Partnership, Business Birmingham. It seems to have become the hue of young, consumerist exuberance hue alongside bright yellow for music media titles such as We Love Pop to Viva but is also the colour of choice for magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall uses the same yellow pink colour scheme for his new vegetarian cookbook. Brands such as HMV and T-Mobile use it as their signature colour but it is also becoming more acceptable for luxury brands to use with marques such as Swarovski and Storm using it prominently in recent print advertising Professional services have also fallen for the lure of pink with even upstanding legal firms such as Maitland Walker opting for the colour. Pink seems to be all the rage at the moment – the ultimate backlash against all types of chromophobia.

4.    Pink is becoming more variegated and nuanced in its sub codings for femininity. There is the lurid bright pink of Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Jordan. In this context, pink is the burlesque of knowing, self-parodying play with an alibi and self-empowerment to the earnest livid red of the Mae West striptease. It has become the colour of giddy hedonism. An event called Ultimate Girls’ Day Out, a jamboree of fashion, giggles and make overs – a sort of hen do in a marquee – uses the colour on its website. Then there is the rose coloured pink of vulnerable matronly femininity of such as sanitary towels, pregnancy tests and pessaries. In the UK, Superdrug seems to use pink to position itself as the more girly and accessible alternative to Boots through use of pink. This is pink as squeamish and vulnerable. Then there is the lavender of purple shades of more mature womanhood such as used in the film poster for the Iron Lady. This is pink as imperious, sagacious womanhood, Laura Ashley without the chintz. Again, this is not all startlingly new but as pink becomes more prominent coding of meaning becomes more explicit.

5.    Pink is both the sign of soft, emotionally intelligent masculinity as much as it is aggressive femininity. In terms of the latter, pink has become the testosterone wash of emasculation in a culture of ‘misandry’. In Katie Price’s TV show, one scene showed her forcing male contestants to strip down to lurid pink briefs. The loud, pink office shirt has long been a sartorial signifier of what could be called ‘brave intimacy’. An emergent male quality. Interesting in this connection is the recent emergence of pink as sports strips. Everton FC now have a pink away strip. The Juventus away kit and Stade Français’s rugby team’s shorts are also pink. Does this indicate that pink is on the one hand becoming the new grey and not worthy of notice, on the other a sign of strength?

6.    Pink is contentious and ambivalent in the context of feminism and femininity. It is both the cladding of the new Amazonian media monstrosities mentioned above and the wry, scurrilous spray paint of their detractors. A range of recent books decrying the state of womanhood all use pink – presumably ironically – in the cover art. Living Dolls by Natasha Waters, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy all use pink either as the typeface colour, background or as an accenting colour in their paperback editions. Is pink double coded, or even polysemous or are these authors thwarted by their desire to position their books as current and funky? I fear they’d be upset by the insinuation. There is certainly great ambivalence towards the colour. PinkStinks.org.uk has been set up to expose and excoriate the prissiness, princess culture. Recently on Facebook, there is a popular video showing a little girl astutely decrying the marketing of pink to girls. 

 © Chris Arning  2012

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

It’s ‘just’ market research

Monday, January 9th, 2012

 

'You know nothing of my work'. Woody Allen calls on Marshall McLuhan to put right an unfortunate pontificator in a famous scene from Annie Hall.


Commercial semiotics claims an intellectual status derived from academia. And undoubtedly the story of how the discipline developed in the UK substantiates this.

The worlds of marketing and structuralist literary theory came together in the mind of Virginia Valentine during a lecture from Malcolm Evans. Today these figures, and the others from the early days of Semiotic Solutions stand in our mythos as culture heroes. Through them, and our own varied academic backgrounds, we mediate our right to a kind of moral ascendancy in the marketing world. After all we’re not just researchers – we’re academics too.

The dissertation I submitted for my masters in Material and Visual Culture at University College London was an attempt to engage with this myth. In it I tried to get to grips with what is at stake when we reference the academy in the commercial world.

This post can only really serve as a prompt for discussion – not even an effective précis of what I wrote. So forgive its narrow scope, though the word limit does serve as a convenient get-out clause. I’ll focus briefly on two figures as a a way to look at the relationship between the commercial and academic: A. J. Greimas and Raymond Williams.

I know about Greimas solely because of the semiotic square. So when it came to reading some of his work and attempting to contextualise this tool it was striking to see the sheer complexity of the algebraic system he developed and the small element that this method represents. The square has been wrenched from its context by the inquisitive and magpie (I’m borrowing the magpie metaphor from Andy Dexter, CEO of research company Truth) eyes of one or several researchers and to use it is hardly to employ a Greimasian approach.

Personally, though when I have used the semiotic square it has been to connote the depth of our thinking to clients, I don’t think they denote very much at all. Like an astrological chart drawn up by Renaissance magician John Dee they are important in the way the reveal our power and expertise, rather than in the way they inform our clients.

Secondly I want to mention Raymond Williams, notable for his powerful presence in our discipline through the ‘Residual-Dominant-Emergent’ code trajectory (a model that has similar magical power to the ‘semiotic square’).

Moreover we have truly inverted his ideological intentions. He was trying to create an adequate Marxist approach to culture when he coined the residual-dominant-emergent spectrum. The work of Williams (not someone who self identified as a semiotician) is central to British commercial semiotics.

And I think it is slightly callous of us to claim this as a signifier of our intellectual rigour as we have inverted his aims so dramatically. Williams helpfully outlined why the emergent is so valuable in capitalist society with a phrase that spookily pre-empts the way we speak to clients today: “if the thing is not making a profit or if it is not being widely circulated, then it can for some time be overlooked, at least while it remains alternative”. However, when he pointed this out, I don’t think that he hoped his theoretical framework would function in the way it has in commercial semiotics.

This isn’t an attack on the industry. On the contrary, I would emphasize the fact that our discipline is a highly effective one, and that the techniques we employ provide valuable output for clients. But this is a pragmatic and not a theoretical discipline, at least not in the academic sense. It is this technological quality that separates us from the Academy (and, as an aside, which makes new ‘Impact’ measures such a threat to quality social science research).

So what of academia? Of course, academia has been hugely important to many of us personally and to our industry as a whole, But I think the term ‘commercial semiotics’ points to a much more academic mode of working than is justified. Maybe there’s some latent guilt in the industry about betraying the academic, critical roots of the models we use – so we try to cling on to our connection with these origins. It has also been valuable to employ a mythology in order to provide our clients with what McLuhan has called an ‘instant vision’ of a more complex system.

Some clients balk at this academic mythology. And I believe we have outgrown it, just as as qual has outgrown psychology and PR has outgrown Bernays. It is my contention that we are underselling ourselves, not overselling ourselves, by clinging to the reassurance that we are not ‘just’ market researchers; and imagining for ourselves the mystical powers of the academic.

 

See Woody Allen chastise the intellectual pontificator here. Imagine if Woody Allen overheard one of us talking about residual-dominant-emergent codes, and conjured up Raymond Williams instead?

 

© Sam Barton 2012

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

The engine electric

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

The rise of the electric car is reinvesting the modernist symbolism of electricity with new meaning.

For example, electric-car symbolism (e.g. Renault, BMW) often uses illuminated urban landscapes to reconnect with the optimism and exhilaration that surrounded electricity in the modernist city.

In the late 19th century, electricity replaced gas lighting in cities, symbolising the urban conquest of night, darkness, and the limitations of nature. It freed city-dwellers from the cycle of day and night which dominated the daily rhythm of their rural counterparts.

Until now, codes of sustainability have largely urged a return to natural finitude. They’ve been all about ‘knowing our limits’, understanding that nothing is endless, and returning to natural, seasonal cycles.

But with electricity promising potential renewability, and thwarting the whole principle of finitude, electric cars are going back to modernist meanings of electricity as infinite and limit-transcending. Ads for electric cars often show glittering cityscapes, or neon signs, rather than the natural environment that’s being ‘saved’.

The cultural interest of this story is such that ‘electricity’, as a theme, is now spilling into other sectors beyond cars. Blackberry’s night bikes campaign

the recreation of the Tron bike

 

and Beyonce’s perfume Pulse

all show that electricity is an idea that’s very much in vogue.

The symbolism of electricity today gives us a 21st-century twist on the 19th-century story of emancipation: a return to a world in which resources are limitless, the lights don't have to be turned off, and there need be no end to the story of modernity and progress.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator describes Gatsby’s house, ‘lit from tower to cellar’ in the middle of the night, as being ablaze like the World’s Fair. This modernist dream of transcending the night – through spectacular and limitless expenditure – seems to be returning in the new cultural centrality of electricity.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Extimacy

Monday, December 5th, 2011

 

 

The close-up shot is currently a popular visual trope in advertising and media, with examples abounding from all sectors. And as the camera gets closer and closer – in particular, closer and closer to the human face and body – it seems we’re dealing with a new way of saying ‘this is real’.

Brands have long sought proximity to consumers, exploring different ways to express the idea of authentic engagement. But it now seems their quest for authenticity is relying on ever-increasing levels of physical proximity and intimacy.

(Nike homepage)

So what does the physical proximity of the close-up signify? And how does it fit with today’s cultural landscape?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the cultural ascendancy of science is a relevant factor. For personal-care brands in particular, that means a shift away from images of psychological authenticity (confidence, self-expression) towards the representation of physiological detail such as cellular process and biological structure. So the camera needs to zoom in much closer than it has done before.  

This symbolic dimension of the close-up could be dubbed ‘ethical naturalism’: a representation of natural and biological processes that’s far from morally neutral. Instead it’s invested with a sense of awe, placing a burden of responsibility and care with the consumer. ‘See how fascinating and wonderful the skin is – doesn’t it deserve the very best moisturisation?’ Displayed as remarkable phenomena, bodies need to be carefully looked after: the close-up shot of skin or hair implies an attitude of wonder, care and respect.   

 Vaseline’s platform ‘Your skin is amazing’ provides a typical expression of ‘ethical naturalism’, and unsurprisingly, makes extensive use of close-up photography too.

Also driving the rise of the close-up are social media. The close-up is, in a sense, a metonym for social-media culture, symbolising the over-exposure and intimate revelation made possible by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With brands keen to participate in this world, it’s not surprising that they’re using close-ups to ally themselves with it.

Both these approaches to the close-up – ethical naturalism and the rise of social media – can be united under the Lacanian term ‘extimacy’. For Lacan, the most intimate aspects of experience are ultimately external or other to the subject, just as the intimacies of social media and of biological naturalism re-locate inner ‘truth’ externally. Extimacy seems to be one of the key tropes in advertising today, which is finding a new aesthetic focus in the externalisation of the intimate.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Private Dancer

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

 

As a teacher I dreamed of starting lectures from 2 or 3 different places simultaneously. Then converging in the middle and stopping.  A different approach from beginning, middle & end. Having never followed through then I will now – starting with the Beatles, Kant and cultural materialism.

Last weekend I watched Scorsese’s film Living in the Material World.  With no professional detachment. I grew up in North Wales (not far from Liverpool) to the sound track of the early Beatles so there was emotion & recollection at every turn in the story. Next morning, I woke thinking about: the huge cultural influence of India on the Beatles, especially George; Olivia Harrison’s words on what makes a marriage last (mainly not getting divorced but more, worth hearing), inspiring anyone with bodywork dented by life’s ups and downs; how George, recovering from cancer, survived an assassination attempt more savage than the one on John Lennon. The casual honesty and integrity of the Beatles in their early days.  Viewing media constructs of themselves detachedly as almost autonomous, with puppet lives of their own. Their ability to be themselves and say what they thought (Lennon’s spontaneous comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus).  And in UK today a certain timidity, conservatism, young people constrained again to fit a mainstream ideological mould.  It was also Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, when a minority wear artificial poppies to commemorate UK military deaths. I don’t remember ever wearing one, nor did my older sons (now 25 and 30). But school pressure this year on both my younger children (aged 9 and 11) to wear the symbolic poppies. Pressure also on FIFA from the English football authorities that England should do likewise in their international against Spain at the weekend, with UK government insistence that the poppy was not, as FIFA maintained, a political symbol. How about your own symbolic flower, FIFA, commemorating deaths of civilians globally at the hands of military forces, including British bombers and invaders? I guess, from the official UK viewpoint, that wouldn’t be political either? Enlightenment trajectories in reverse – kids pressed to wear poppies, musically abusive X-Factor culture, pop controlled again by formulaic, super rich middle-aged impresarios as before the Beatles. Slavoj Zizek would say: “It’s ideology, stupid!”

Second point of departure is Zizek’s 2011 discussion with Julian Assange about democracy today. No better antidote to the eroding ideological drip. Zizek’s abnegation of postmodernist jiggery pokery in his endorsement of Wikileaks whistle-blowers risking torture and death to publicise war crimes and human rights outrages.  Done by ‘us’ (from the viewpoint of the US-UK-Israel axis) not by the more familiar manifestations of ‘them’ – be that 24-hour rolling Nazis on the History Channel, historical communism, Islamic extremists or the human rights neglecting contemporary Chinese (let’s occlude Guantanamo and Wikileaks-disclosed outrages for another self-righteous moment).  Zizek and Assange’s clarity about the distortions and cover-ups by mainstream media. What happened to relativism and living with contradictions? Assange’s identification of potentially powerful agents of disruption and change in digital specialists mainstream institutions depend on to implement their strategies and who, informed by online sources and their own networks, don’t share the official media values and ideologies disseminated by and in the interest of those very institutions. Finally, Zizek quoting Kant on ‘public’ versus ‘private’ uses of reason. The ‘public’ being a quest for understanding in the human interest as opposed to ‘private reason’ in which expert knowledge is put to the service of private interests or existing power structures (e.g. expertise in crowd behaviour deployed for controlling demonstrations). Zizek makes the point that the biggest threat to the Judaeo-Christian heritage/Western civilisation today is not, as received wisdom avers, Islam, but. the silencing of public reason – via an assault on disinterested education and research, and increasing emphasis on knowledge/expertise dedicated solely to helping established power and interests work more effectively. Listen to Zizek (about 70 minutes into the film) – he makes this point much more eloquently than I can.

Third point of departure – cultural materialism, specifically the work of Raymond Williams. There’s a potted history of the current commercial application of semiotics originally developed in UK in the early 1990s, where the author introduces Williams's Residual-Dominant-Emergent mapping to the team at specialist agency Semiotic Solutions as a way of analysing trends in brand communications viewed in cultural context  – into what looks dated (Residual), what’s mainstream (Dominant), and what’s new & dynamic (Emergent, with its predictive power to help brands future-proof their advertising and other communication). This became perhaps the most familiar ‘tool’ of the current iteration of brand semiotics. Raymond Williams, a Marxist cultural critic, must have turned in his grave at this piece of conceptual hijacking.  Now something springs from the earth like the hand at the end of Carrie. Added Value’s Sam Barton has sent a preview of his fascinating Masters thesis in Material Culture, on the business of brand semiotics. One of Sam’s many inspiring insights comes from going back to what Raymond Williams actually wrote. In context. the dominant culture “selects and organises” information that comes from outside itself in such a way that it remains current, making it difficult for anyone to think outside its parameters.  The emergent represents new practices outside the dominant, which the dominant will assiduously attempt to transform and assimilate into itself for as long as possible – to arrest the breakthrough into more progressive forms of social and economic organisation. So the applied commercial ‘tool’, as Sam Barton argues, is actually a “brutal inversion” of Williams’s original Residual-Dominant-Emergent formulation – a case study in how the dominant works to arrest a movement towards the emergent. And, one might add in support of public reason, a beautiful and symmetrical example of an ideological appropriation springing around to bite itself in the backside.

Midnight approaches for Faust. “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi”. The show must go on.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Holy Jolie

Monday, November 14th, 2011

She’s celebrity culture’s Mother Goddess – prolifically giving birth and adopting, making space in her family for all the world’s children. And now Angelina Jolie has taken her healing aspirations further with her directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey – in which the main character, a Muslim woman, falls in love with her Serbian rapist.

But in a very public row, the survivors of mass rape in the Bosnian war called for Jolie to be stripped of her title of UN Ambassador of Goodwill, saying that ‘a love story couldn’t have existed in a rape camp’.

I responded to the symbolism made visible in this drama with a performance art piece entitled Holy Jolie. The piece was also inspired by another news story which came out at the same time: a temple in Cambodia, where Lara Croft was shot, was renamed the ‘Angelina Jolie temple’ by its leading monks, in an attempt to save it from ruin.

The combined stories struck a chord for me as an artist born in Bosnia and sensitive to the often absurd power dynamics shaping the realities we live in. In Holy Jolie I combined images of Lara Croft and codes surrounding victimhood to create an impossible temple raised to the modern UN goddess.

On the altar of this archetypal mother-figure, I offered many Bosnian children, ‘more than she ever wanted’. (After the war there were many unwanted children as a result of forced pregnancies in rape camps, recognised by international courts as a crucial part of a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing.)

I wanted to make the point that the shame of rape cannot be transformed into language – least of all into the soothing resolutions of the Hollywood Imaginary. For Bosnian rape survivors, the symbolic blockage is double. First, they can’t talk about their experiences as their trauma lies at the limit of representable human experience. And second, even when they do try to tell their story, no-one, in Bosnia’s patriarchal society, will listen.

As a post-colonial, post-war and deeply traumatised country, Bosnia offers space for international cultural interventions which in other settings simply wouldn’t pass. When Jolie, as a personification of Hollywood power, decided to delve into this subject, she did two things. Firstly, she shed an important spotlight on one of the most traumatic events in European history since the Second World War. But secondly, she disregarded the experiences of thousands of raped women.

Like an elephant in a china shop, this film bursts into a sphere of national trauma, enacting a fantasy of healing and romantic redemption that’s wildly off the mark as a piece of narrative. Predictably enough, Jolie brand power won over the Bosnian cultural elites who were completely smitten by her unexpected appearance at the Sarajevo Film Festival in August this year. Another award was bestowed, while the controversies around the film didn’t even get a mention.

The film that will be offered to mass audiences in December will super-impose Hollywood ideals onto a reality that’s beyond conventional narrative. In my performance, I naively pray to the Goddess to take our shattered pasts and futures and make a good film out of those. I don’t believe the prayer will be fulfilled anytime soon.

 

© Edina Husanovic  2011

Posted in Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Global/Local | No Comments »

Ballad of a Thin Man

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

Who is this guy? What’s he doing on the front page of the Financial Times (29 Oct 2011)? Do look at him in context but please don’t tell me the answer. My inquiry is a rhetorical question in the manner of Roland Barthes's “Who is speaking?” and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain" or "Ballad of a Thin Man".

Why so miserable, mate? Don’t worry, we say idiomatically in England, it may never happen. Sure Zegna’s an Italian brand and the main front page headline on this day (“Italy spoils mood after EU deal”) concerns the threat of the nation joining Greece on the slide to Eurozone default. But even that wouldn’t be as bad as the facial expression suggests. Is this the absolute end of the road for European serotonin depletion culture as a whole, the worst case payback scenario made flesh for all the serial Ecstasy poppers from the old Rave days? Or is Zegna working on a new migraine therapy? Is this what you hold in your bag, so gingerly distant from your new tweed slacks – as if the brown polish that made the shine is as yet imperfectly dried, might still come off and leave a nasty stain? In this same week it was announced that because of Italy’s debt crisis the launch of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s new collection of Neapolitan love songs would be delayed (Silvio famously claims to have learned everything he knows about working a crowd from his time as a singer on cruise ships). Are you an executive at Berlusconi’s record company by any chance? Is that bag full of unmarketable CDs?

Does the seriousness underwrite a Northern rather than a Latin Italianness – Protestant Ethic 24/7 Zegna as the most understated of the Italian luxury brands, safe for the undemonstrative middle-aged business male (NOT Gucci or Versace, almost Jil Sander-like, capable of just about of passing for German if Italy did collapse into chaos and one needed to get across the border quickly)?

Or is this just romantic melancholy/agony, eyes fixed half focused on a lost love, quest, formula – whatever the Absent One is which inaugurates the movement of desire. Out of this torpor is something about to stir and twitch to life? Meanwhile does your resemblance to posh English actor Jeremy Irons when he was younger trigger a protective response in women? Is this why you look like your mum just dressed you, brushed your hair, put the stuff in your hands that looks as if it didn’t belong to you and you’re pretending for some reason it’s not there? Under the coat with solicitously upturned collar (lapel then firmly patted down by maternal right palm) and under the cardigan is there another jumper, this last one tucked neatly into the top of your trousers?  Layers. Jacket belt tightened snug across your tummy. To make sure that nasty headache isn’t made worse by a snuffle or a chest cold? Did they send you away to boarding school too young? Is this mood all about the recoil? Will you show them?  The other front page story, to the left of this picture, is “Cameron argues more women in the boardroom would lead to a curb on pay”. So what’s the game? Does your appealing helplessness qualify you as some kind of feminist icon?

But hold on. There’s a retro vestimentary code working here – an incongruously pristine version of old-style adventurer, explorer, robust masculinity conquering the worst nature can throw at it. Banker as hunter – as here below in a preposterous (are the people this is talking to on mental life support?) FT ad from the same day. Is this what that Zegna far away look’s about? New frontiers, challenges, horizons. Perhaps not. Just a touch too sad, sulky, depressed for that. Did your friends and colleagues stop sponsoring your heroic exploits for charity?  Did they start clicking the button that says “Pay for your own extreme sports holidays and redirect me to where I can donate for social inclusion, fairness and redistribution”?

The branding and the end line: “Ermengildo Zegna – Passion for Life”. So where’s the passion? Are you a metrics consultant? Is this about calibrating intensities of apathy or misery?  Nothing that can't be measured is worth tolerating, remember?  Or is this the contradiction that will spark a new Zegna brand myth? Abject machismo? Eternity measured out in coffee spoons? The effable ineffable? Is this deconstructing how business jargon has battered the word ‘passion’ to an entropic emotional and semantic pulp? A plea to divert the energy out of stereotypical hyperbole and back where it belongs. Give unto the corporation what is the corporation's. Passion for life.

Finally return to look at this in its media context, the front page of the FT. What does it look like? Different there – like an energy oubliette in the bottom right corner, a discordant slate tombstone. A contemporary visual echo of the obituaries that used to appear on the front page of the London Times in the days when today's great private media monopolies were just a glint in Satan's eye. Obituary for what? A way of life? A brand? What is the meaning of this thin man?

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

The poetry of business

Monday, October 31st, 2011

If you're searching for the sacred springs of poetic inspiration, your first port of call wouldn’t usually be KPMG, Halliburton or Pot Noodle.

But copywriter Nick Asbury has shown that poetry – hovering between the intended and the unintended – abounds in corporate and brand discourse. He's created a technique, Corpoetics, which involves replicating extracts from websites and business publications, and re-arranging them on the page to draw out their poetic potential.

Here’s an example of Corpoetics in practice:

'KPMG'

I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.

I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.

I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.

What am I?
I am the best.

Read the original KPMG text here.

While gently poking fun at the pretensions of corporate language, Corpoetics isn’t meant to be primarily critical. In fact, it’s the very subtlety of the technique that offers semioticians an interesting perspective.

These poems take existing signs and get us reading them differently, thanks to a minimal act of reframing. It shows that critical thought needn’t always look beyond the surface of the sign to find a hidden truth beneath. Sometimes all it needs to do is stay with the signifier – playing with surface forms to draw out a wider range of meaning.

‘Halliburton’, for instance, reveals a desolation that might not have come through on a conventional reading:

We operate in broad array,

starting with production –

finally to infrastructure

and abandonment.

Corpoetics is a technique everyone can try at home. Readers are welcome to share examples in the comments thread below! Here are the rules as supplied by Nick:

·     Take the text from the ‘about us’ page of any corporate website
·     Rearrange the words into a poem
·     You don’t have to use all the words
·     You can use the same word twice
·     No fragments or anagrams of words
·     Punctuation can be added as necessary

 

Links

To read more about Corpoetics, and order a copy of Nick's book, visit his website here.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Sonic Semiotics

Friday, October 21st, 2011

I just decided I wanted to write something on sonic semiotics for Semionaut. This was triggered by attending the School Of Sound at the Barbican and a session dedicated to the use of sound design in animation. I have a stubborn interest in the semiotics of music and the extent to which music can be said to refer to outside itself.

As often when you hear creatives talk, the discourse is one of accidental sagacity, happy mishaps and serendipity. One of the sound designers, Mark Ashworth talked about using his baby girl's scream alongside guitar flares to create a sinister shriek.

Another experienced female designer talked about just using instinct in her work.

There was no mention of any codes or the other nomenclature that you might expect, to guide selection of element – this may have been the nature of the genre which is maybe more SFX based than scored. It did strike me however that the only times sonic motifs were mentioned (for example a crackling light bulb used as a transition motif or way of ending a scene) these were rather dismissed as just aural clichés

I was going to pipe up in the Q&A but I knew that any answers would cleave to the groove of haphazard felicity already ploughed in the discussion.

Of course I do not impugn their credentials. There was some great work on show. I guess they just rely on abductive instinct rather than any conscious selection from pre-existing sound typologies. As a broker between underlying meaning and creative expression couldn’t semiotics play a role in making tricks of the trade more explicit?

Theorizing what these people were doing might have seemed limiting, and somehow a repudiation of creative ingenuity. Is this a natural antipathy to anything to do with book learning or because it is seen as superfluous, i.e, as 'teaching fish to swim'?

It’s ironic though that one of the issues touched on was a lament there is no common lexicon to discuss the feeling film directors want and the sonic effect that could create this feeling. The trial and error rapport built up between director and sound designer no doubt works, but i wondered whether a sonic semiotic crib might have helped here.

I believe it was Elvis Costello who once said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Stravinsky famously denied the possibility of music having any real meaning and Umberto Eco declared the music only carries denotations rather than connotations – one of the least sage things he ever wrote in my humble opinion.

So what has semiotics to say about music? Well, quite a lot as it happens. There is a rich canon of work looking at Romantic-Classical music tracing themes for instance of Faustian self-questioning in Liszt piano works or anti-Stalinist ironies Shostakovich symphonies. Finnish professor Eero Tarasti has written a book on the Semiotics of Music drawing on both Peirce and Greimas. His main theme is narrativity through harmonic tension, and he ascribes an existential will to the unfolding piece of music.

Authors such as Lidov, Nattiez and others have also written on this subject. Many of these works centre around the notion of a musical subject nestled in a ‘sonorous envelope’. Naomi Cumming’s book the Sonic Self posits a classification of musical signs via Peirce: timbre and the grain of sound linked to Peircean qualisigns, gesture  and melodic ornaments and figures of expression to sinsigns, with more syntactic tonal processes governed by harmonic rules as legisigns suggesting desire. These are all seen as iconic in the Peircean sense and are linked back to music as an expression of human gesture. Rebecca Leydon has written a fascinating paper on a series of tropes applied to minimalist music such as that of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, distinguished by uses of repetition technically known as ostinati, therefore containing less harmonic unfolding. These include ‘totalitarian’ and ‘aphasic’ tropes.

One of my personal heroes in this area is musicologist Philip Tagg who has extended serious semiotics to popular music; it is refreshing to read a forthright Yorkshireman mention semiotics, the Clash and Aeolian triads without having to apologize to his readers. Tagg takes musicology to task writing: “musicology has tended to steer clear of viewing music as a symbolic system whose structures are considered as either references to or as interpretations, reflections, reconstructions…of experiences which are not necessarily intrinsically musical”. Tagg does great work in surveying a broad range of music from jazz through rock and punk to techno and looking for musemes or minimum units of meaning of units. One of these would be the Aeolian triad which is traditionally a signifier of mourning, yearning or existential dread. Semiotics has really added to the canon since books like Cooke’s seminal The Language of Music.

I co-authored an ESOMAR conference paper on the semiotics of sound and music in advertising in 2006 and argued then that not enough attention was being paid to sound design as a strategic brand building tool and that it was still an afterthought in too many creative development schedules. In the paper, (written with Alex Gordon of Sign Salad) we bracketed off the idea of subjective experience and somatic markers. We then put forward a rough model of sonic semiotic affect on listeners based on musical encoding (universal kinetic properties from a social psychology view) and cultural encoding (broadly social semiotic, though not explicitly so) and argued that a more explicit attempt to score and compose according to this framework could help sensitize brand owners to the possibilities for managing meaning in sonic branding rather than surrendering to the lure of likeability or a despair of complete subjectivity.

Even though there has been no ‘final theory’ of music, what is commendable is the fact that semioticians continue to work to bring more sophisticated understanding to such an ineffable phenomenon. Semiotics brings the meaning that social psychology musicology and other fields lack. I am keen to promote greater interest in this area.

© Chris Arning  2011

Posted in Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Life stories

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

It is every brand’s goal to become a defining point in your, yet at the same time everyone’s, life story, in hope of building up emotional value, lifelong loyalty and becoming a myth. In anticipation of Facebook’s new profile interface, the Timeline: Tell your life story with a new kind of profile it’s worth noting how various brands have used the same strategy to creep into our lives.

One example is UK department store John Lewis's latest TV advert  that showcases the role their electrical products have played in people’s lives over the years, played against a backdrop of iconic music tracks.

The advert consists of seven scenes, each representing a different era, ending with two teenagers enjoying a performance of ‘Shine On’ by the Kooks on the latest internet-enabled Sony Internet TV. The ‘seven scenes’ also resonate with Shakespeare’s legendary As You Like It speech (Act II Scene vii): “And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages…

KFC came up with a reverse timeline of a love story for their “Love is Forever” ad. It opens with an elderly couple dancing to Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ and becoming gradually younger until they eventually waltz back to childhood.

The timeline formula has also been used in the “Time Flies” advert for South Africa’s largest investment company, Alan Gray long term investment fund, which tells the story of a girl who grows up in a hurry, realising years later that time is priceless and shouldn’t be rushed.

On celebrating their 20 years’ presence in Russia, Mars have made an advert that provides a twist on the usual timeline theme. Their campaign It’s good that some dreams never come true features a young girl wishing when she grows up to “wear pink leggings and dance in the disco with a man in a crimson jacket”. Meanwhile, in another execution, a young boy wishes to “become a businessman, drive a Lada 6 and be married to a top model”.

The adverts then show a glimpse of what that may have looked like and fast-forwards to show the less ridiculous reality, reminding us of our silly childhood dreams that thankfully never materialised.  

Another in the endless list of recycling the timeline formula attempts is last year’s Unilever campaign  for its male grooming line Dove Men+Care, based on milestones including marriage and kids, in an attempt to challenge the stereotypes around “Real Men” and move away from traditional male grooming ads. 

So, for brands, an effective way to become embedded in consumers’ lives is to act as ‘biographers’ – telling life stories and ‘being there’ at key symbolic stages. Facebook’s Timeline, giving consumers the chance to narrate and curate their own unfolding life stories, will bring further attention to these symbolic contact points between brands and biographies.

 “Advertising is so powerful that we can describe our lives with it" – that's how Romanian advertising agency Next explain their campaign Advertising is a part of our life which managed to demonstrate the powerful storytelling potential of brands in intimate everyday situations. Their award-winning ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Refuse’ ad-stories both feature a dialogue which consists of listing brands.

The ‘Refuse’ dialogue is as follows:

A woman is chopping vegetables in the kitchen, when a man approaches and embraces her sensually.

Man: “Murfatlar Wine… Relaxa… Durex?”

Woman: “Nurofen… Libresse. “

‘Jealousy'  offers a more intricate plot, as a woman accuses her husband of infidelity based on a list of growing brand-based suspicions: "Avon…Toyota…Novotel?"

What is most fascinating is that this dialogue doesn’t need translation in an age of global brands, where brandspeak is a common language. And if brands give us a way to tell our stories, from everyday interactions to overviews of life stages, perhaps one day we could even rewrite As You Like It just by listing brand names.

 

© 2011 Sandra Mardin

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Sequencing | No Comments »

When products speak

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

 

The Alpha Romeo Giulietta tells us ‘I am Giulietta’ at the end of its ads. French Connection’s blouses and bags proclaim ‘I am the blouse’ and ‘I am the bag’. Nikon repeats the trope in its current campaign. And a recent ad for San Miguel lager reveals its narrator, at the end, to be the beer itself. They’re all examples of the rhetorical device prosopopeia – in which inanimate objects are given a voice of their own. 

A similar case is the Peugeot RCZ which ‘chooses’ and ‘owns’ its drivers rather than the other way round. It’s not strictly prosopopeia, as the car doesn’t speak in its own voice. But it’s in the same conceptual ballpark: the object or product becomes a living thing with subjectivity of its own.

Of course, talking, animated products have been bouncing around at the ‘fun’ end of advertising forever – think M&Ms, Cheestrings and Peperami in the UK. But to find this trope in the serious register of high-end advertising might signify a bigger change.

It could signal a break with the consumer-centred brand-led advertising of recent years – in which the subjective experience of the consumer is symbolically central. We know the story so well. Consumers are offered not a product but the return of their own authentic being: a chance to overcome alienation and find themselves in the brand – as in Nike, Dove, Coca-Cola, and countless other examples.

But Peugeot, Alpha Romeo, Nikon, French Connection and San Miguel have all transferred subjectivity from consumer to product in their ads. San Miguel plays on the shift with particular awareness – leading us to expect from the ad yet another tedious and portentous first-person self-description, yet another expression of ‘who I really am’, before surprising us with its relocation of subjectivity in the beer itself.

Perhaps what’s happening here is a reflection of technological advance – and the fact that products are becoming smarter, more intelligent and more sentient by the day. We’re already used to cars and devices that speak to us. Maybe we’re seeing the start of a new relationship between humans and products – in which we need to start listening to what they say.

 

© 2011 Louise Jolly

Posted in Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

Network: Kristian

Friday, September 30th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?

I am in Sofia, Bulgaria, I am teaching semiotics and hundreds of derivative matters at the New Bulgarian University.

Tell us about your course at the New Bulgarian University?

I am doing dozens of courses, the residual ones are on semiotics and philosophy of language, the dominant ones on semiotics of brands and marketing communication and the emergent ones… again on brand communication, but trying to introduce the ‘experience economy’ perspective.

How did you first get interested in semiotics?  And the relationship between semiotics and brand communication?

Around 1990 I was at Bologna University studying Film and Drama. After my Thursday lecture on Aesthetics there were always crowds of students coming to listen to the next lecture, given by a with a beard and glasses. After some time I asked a colleague of mine:

– Who is this guy?

– How ‘who’? This is Umberto Eco!

– Who the f…k is Umberto Eco?

Then, you know, the ‘immigrant’ had to show that he wasn't stupider than the natives…From that semiotics and brand communication was a natural development. I started to teach at the New Bulgarian University 2 weeks after I graduated from Bologna. The label ‘the pupil of Eco’ was applied to me and this brand extension made it easy for me to get opportunities on various study programmes. I have started many courses, but only one has survived into the next decade – Semiotics of Marketing and Advertising.  Actually before 1989 in Bulgaria there were no such things as marketing or advertising and New Bulgarian University was founded in 1991 (18th September, btw, Happy 20th Birth day NBU!) exactly to provide academic coverage to similar lacks in the social sphere, the arts and applied science. I was witnessing during these years how consumer culture emerged almost from nothing and brands were the major operators in the process. Brand communication was simply the most interesting subject of semiotic inquiry during this period and gradually I oriented almost all my interests there. My department started a masters program in Advertising and Lifestyles in 2007.

Your Sozopol summer school is one of the great events of the social calendar for academic semiotics.  Can you tell us something about that?

You got it right, the ‘social calendar! We have organised this event since 1995 and it took a lot of time to realise that academics are quite boring if they are at the centre. Creating the right social atmosphere, using as a driving force the students creativity and their drive for self-expression is the key to success for both the academic and the social part. The other key factor is international participation, which creates unique conditions and qualities, unachievable within a single university group. Last but not least, we invite semiotic professionals from the business, who are another source of energy for the discipline and add value to the ‘gross semiotic product’ of the event.

Kristian Bankov with Umberto Eco

Tell us about the image you have chosen to illustrate this interview?

My favorite semiotic brand! Of proved equity by demonstration!

What are your main ambitions professionally for the next two or three years?

To train my assistants to do all the jobs I am doing now! But this is impossible, so I shall focus on more realistic goals. Creating an international PhD program in semiotics would be great. Not the usual academic research PhD, but placing the doctorants in companies and organizations outside the university, making their research projects practical and useful for those organizations and even involving people from there in the evaluation committee for the defence. Thus we can start to export into society high level semiotic professionals, universal communication wizards…Also establishing a semiotic laboratory in our university (well, this is done), but developing unique brand research products and going in the Bulgarian market research market with them.

© Kristian Bankov  2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semionauts at work

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

In the 1951 British drama Cloudburst (d. Francis Searle), Robert Preston — standing, at left, in the scene shown above — is a wartime cryptographer for the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine organization known as "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." He and his (mixed-gender) team labor night and day, using various scientific-looking methods, until they've successfully cracked the enemy's code.

Because commercial semiotics — following in the footsteps of Virginia Valentine — has borrowed from Barthes and structural anthropology the notion of "cultural codes" (symbols and systems of meaning that are relevant to members of a particular culture), practitioners in the field have implicitly or explicitly claimed that they are in the business of cracking codes, and providing clients with a key which will unlock these codes. So it would be an interesting exercise to explore the discipline of cryptanalysis, in search of resonances and dissonances with our own discipline.

Here's one of many possible approaches to making such a comparison of disciplines…

Following the structuralists, many commercial semioticians implicitly express the belief that cultural is a system of signs, and that as such, it has a structure — which is the "real thing" undergirding a surface reality, whose meanings are merely apparent meanings. The position of each element within that structure is determined by the whole. Commercial semioticians are plutonian spelunkers, uniquely able to get beneath a culture's surface reality and map its underlying structure. Returning to the surface with this map, they can then unlock the culture's codes. Poststructuralists might take into account the notion that human agency can alter these structures — but we still buy into the structures' reality, thus failing to insulate ourselves from criticisms like anthropologist Adam Kuper's: "Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of a millennial movement and some of its adherents felt that they formed a secret society of the seeing in a world of the blind."

So are cryptanalysts a secret society of the seeing in a world of the blind? During World War II — if Cloudburst, which was based on real-life cryptographer Leo Marks' experiences, is a reliable indication — that's exactly how they viewed themselves. Marks seems to have believed that this was a form of hubris, and that anyone who viewed himself that way was riding for a fall. In Cloudburst, when Robert Preston's character's wife is killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident, he turns his considerable analytical abilities to the problem of identifying and murdering the culprits. "He had murdered once!" declaims the movie's poster. "Now he was ready to strike again… and no one could catch him but himself!" It's interesting to note that Marks also wrote the story on which the cult classic 1968 drama Sebastian — about a cryptographer for British Intelligence (Dirk Bogarde) whose self-regard for his own analytic ability leads him to fall into the hands of foreign agents — is based. Perhaps there is a moral here for hubristic commercial semioticians; traditionally, the antidote to hubris is a humble recognition of one's limits.

Two other avenues to explore, off the top of my head:

* Cryptanalysis, like commercial semiotics, targets weaknesses in the cryptography — it looks for ways beneath the surface reality (a jumble of apparently meaningless signs) and seeks the underlying structure which allows us to make sense of those signs. But black-ops types will tell you that there are more efficient methods of finding out what a coded message says: bribery, physical coercion, burglary, spying, and trickery, to name a few. Can commercial semioticians find inspiration from these methods to crack cultural codes? I'm being provocative—but maybe this sort of thing is already going on. For example, when anthropologists hired by ad agencies are embedded in a typical target consumer's home, where they observe the consumer's interactions with cereal boxes and so forth… isn't this an effort to beat commercial semioticians to the punch? By spying, that is to say, instead of desk-based code cracking?

* In the mid-1970s, the field of cryptanalysis adopted asymmetric key cryptography, which underpins such Internet standards as TLS, PGP, and GPG encryption. Asymmetric key cryptography encodes and decodes messages via mathematical relationships (I don't pretend to understand them) which have no efficient solution. The key used to encrypt a message is not the same as the key used to decrypt it. A common analogy is a locked mailbox with a mail slot: anyone can drop a message through the slot, but only the person who possesses the key can open the mailbox and read the messages. Commercial semioticians who attempt to think-with asymmetric key cryptography won't be any less tempted to regard themselves as members of a secret society of the seeing… but perhaps they'll be less likely to regard non-semioticians as "blind." If the encryption key is open-source, then anyone — everyone — is potentially a coder.

This post is not intended to make a case of any kind; it's a conversation starter. So what do you think?

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Contributions from, Disciplines, Experts & Agencies, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

From musical score to critical noise

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Composers and sound designers have long treated commercial projects as they would film scores, but in miniature. It’s obvious to see why. Traditional scoring techniques do many things for film and other media. Scoring adds flavour; provides a sense of time and place; magnifies emotion; enhances activity and establishes mood. A mere hint of melody can even frame the present, foreshadow the future, or recall the past.

Scoring also serves the functional purpose of smoothing problematic transitions. It’s as if music possesses a sensory gravity that draws together disparate images, scenes, people and places. A deftly scored experience feels less a sequence of individual events and more like a cohesive, unified work.

Obviously, music is pretty magical stuff, and there is no question that for the modern storyteller, it remains a powerful tool.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of multiple, small portable screens, in tandem with the device-ification of all remaining objects, has changed (and will continue to change) how audiences navigate media. If our smart phones cause a distraction now, what happens when our homes and everything in them also become ‘smart’?

The primary effect is that marketers are increasingly forced to abbreviate narrative, and add brand-to-fan touch points that didn’t exist before (or if they existed, were ignored). Consequently, the notion of story has been stretched to its semantic limits.

Yet one noticeably interesting result of this tectonic paradigm shift has been the curious emergence of a new breed of sonic artisan.

The practice is called audio, music or sonic branding, and many have indeed recast themselves using this nomenclature. Others have adopted related verbal identifiers, but haven't updated their processes, because they think such phrases are simply new ways to give the same old thing a modern twist.

Personally, I believe branding with sound does require a different aural intelligence than is typically accumulated from a film or broadcast media composer’s education or experience. I frame the actual process as the development and combination of micro musical sounds into ‘critical noise’ assets. Unlike most commercial composition, the aim is not to support narrative, but to convey a message.

Rather, we employ sound to reframe an otherwise interruptive transition as an informational transaction. A navigation tone, such as a click of the mouse, for one example, confirms ‘command executed’.  A custom ringtone signals someone you know requests your attention. And a deceptively simple melodic logo has unzipped itself inside your brain. You can't really sing it, but its construction suggests it's bursting with symbolic data.

Indeed, in the same way the purpose and design of a traffic signal is different from painting landscapes, so too is the craft of sonic signification different from composing music to enhance dramatic action. Ironically, branded sound is designed to influence behavior and drive action from a potentially distracted audience, while an action score is composed to delight a passive, receptive audience.

This is why new musical solutions providers require not only musical talent but also the ability to research and analyse extra musical, culturally relevant data. Lacking these skills, we risk conceptual dissonance when our goal is immediate comprehension.

Additionally, these sonic assets are ‘critical’ because in an automated world, they are the first point of contact between a brand and consumer, and therefore increasingly synonymous with another more common signifier: ‘hello’.  

Unlike thematic material, when we use sound as a signifier, we intend to deliver a self-contained and instant communication. Sometimes, in the case of a consumer touch point, we only have seconds to do this. While that is just as hard to do as it sounds, it isn’t without precedent. But first, we have to think like a sonic semiotician.

I was fortunate to produce a 1.25 sec connect tone for AT&T. The communications company wanted to leverage the pause between dial and pick-up to identify itself using a non-verbal connection tone. Impossible? As it turns out, you can actually say a lot in 1.25 seconds. You can say: ‘Provided to by AT&T, a friendly and technologically savvy company.’

To understand how this might actually work, consider the possibility of guessing the title of a song from a snippet. Now, even more amazing, recall how a mere sliver of sound can evoke an emotional response. Anger, Love, Sadness, Joy. It quickly becomes evident that even a button-sized musical solution has the power to fulfill a marketing objective. And because branded sonic assets are often wordless, they become especially advantageous assets across a multinational customer base.

Of course, traditional film scoring techniques will continue to contribute to our enjoyment of stories. However, marketers will increasingly rely less on scoring and more on critical noise solutions that can guarantee immediate brand signification as a means to fulfilling a communications strategy or marketing objective.

In other words, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.

 

© 2011 Terry O’Gara

Read more about critical noise on Terry's blog.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Just Radical Enough

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

 

Banca Cívica is a recently created Spanish bank, originally an offshoot of the semi-public regional savings bank, Caja Navarra (CAN), which itself became well-known through its policy of allowing its customers to choose which charity would benefit from the interest accrued on their money (a first in Spain). However, while remaining linked to its mother institution, Banca Cívica has become a self-standing bank, which suggests that CAN is trying to expand beyond the limits imposed by its regional identity.

This (below), I believe, is a representative sample of Banca Cívica’s introductory campaign.

The campaign is mostly text-based, using messages in a typography and colours that imitate urban graffiti – so convincingly, in fact, that many people have taken them for actual graffiti. It should be however noted that this is ‘tasteful’ graffiti – words are correctly spelt, and the colours are Banca Cívica’s corporate colours – pink and purple, remarkable in themselves given their feminine connotations, quite unusual in the banking industry. This feminine connotation is no doubt connected to the way in which Banca Cívica defines itself as an organisation that is ‘different from other banks’ in its social concerns and its transparency.

In addition, the typography used to imitate graffiti does not resemble any forms usually  employed by graffiti artists, but rather is partially reminiscent of the typographies created by Spanish avant-garde designer, David Delfín, and ultimately of the source from which many Spanish designers have drawn, directly or indirectly: Javier Mariscal, well known for his thick traits and naive, child-like visual style.

Obviously, Banca Cívica’s target audience is not the graffiti artist demographic. But its target audience – 30 to 40-year-old urban upper-middle class – can aesthetically identify with a softer, more chic and palatable version of graffiti. Likewise, Banca Cívica provides a ‘non-radical’ version of solidarity and cooperation with which middle-class professionals can feel comfortable: the message being that capitalism is not incompatible with social concerns (in fact, this is the idea at the core of the entire notion of Corporate Social Responsibility).

An index of this ‘capitalistic’ conception of cooperation is the emphasis placed by the campaign on the first person singular: “I should be able to decide which charity”, “They should tell me how much they make from MY dough”. This is a trait which Banca Cívica inherited from CAN’s breakthrough strategy of allowing its customers to decide exactly which charities to sponsor. And again in Banca Cívica this trait signals a considerable difference both with respect to other banks and with respect to other organisations dealing with social problems, such as NGOs. The idea seems to be that the same individualistic, self-interested and demanding attitude that a bank’s customers have with regard to their own money can be applied to a bank’s social action: that transparency and customer choice also apply to charity. Banca Cívica’s campaign is meant to visually encode this idea by means of an aesthetic which can be described as alternative but not too much so – (relatively) innovative but not in a radical (i.e. threatening) way.

© Asunción Álvarez 2011

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

The politics of friendship

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Google Plus, posing a challenge to Facebook, puts a different cultural model of friendship centre stage – highlighting the political and constructed nature of friendship itself.

Facebook, broadly speaking, applies a democratic model of friendship. As with democratic politics, the idea here is to accumulate friends (read ‘votes’): the more, the better. Number is important – as with the democratic politician who needs to win elections. And friendship is about the crowd or network: the critical mass that brings power, recognition and validation in a democratic society.

As part of this system, all friends are equal. There’s nothing to distinguish the best friend from the long-forgotten acquaintance on a person’s Facebook page. The friendship group is an abstract accumulation in which every name carries the same apparent value.

But friendship isn’t always a classless society. What about the rigorous hierarchy children introduce into their friendship networks – where there’s a ‘best friend’, a ‘second-best friend’ and even a ‘third-best friend’? These intricate distinctions may fade as we mature beyond the age of five, but friendship remains tiered.

Aristotle believed that friendship involved inevitable acts of selection, inclusion and exclusion – and that true friends are rare. He also described the principle of ‘testing’ in friendship, which, to prove itself, has to survive ordeals and difficulties over time. It’s a minimising way to approach social life, at odds with Facebook-style accretion.

In fact, set against these ideas, the quantitative perspective on friendship tends to cancel itself out. Paradoxically, ‘many friends’ can end up meaning ‘no real friends’. According to this political view, a long list of Facebook friends would symbolise not strength but a weak, diluted social base. Friendship is instead signified by rarity and scarcity – the ‘select few’.

In democratic societies, however, there’s an in-built suspicion of the idea of the ‘select few’, which tends to be denigrated as the clique, coterie or cabal (all coded ‘aristocratic’). But it’s back – in Google Plus’s alternative take on social networking which applies just this model.

With its Circles and Huddles, Google Plus puts the selectivity back into friendship. And while its overt discourse centres on privacy – different audiences for different information – its boundaries also bring with them the more troublesome ‘unspoken’ of preferential hierarchies and exclusions. Do classical friendship structures inevitably end up conspiring against the codes of democracy?

Title and Aristotle references from Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship (1994)

Mark Vernon's essay on the uneasy relationship between friendship and democracy

Marmite plays with the idea of the 'select few'

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | No Comments »

Decoding Reality TV

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

 

Where did the Animal Planet network get the idea for Pit Boss, a series about little people who rescue mistreated pit bulls? According to a 2010 Multichannel News story, the network relied on a study, titled Truth Culture Decoder: Inventing Reality, which "uses a research methodology called semiotics — mostly used in consumer product development to study cultural trends — to help networks better predict the chance of success or failure of reality shows."

The Truth Culture Decoder was the brainchild of brand strategist Linda Ong (a former senior vice president of marketing at Oxygen) and semiotic brand analyst Scott Hamrah, who together form Truth Consulting. Ong tells Multichannel News that the TCD can be "a tool for networks to better hone into the trends that consumers are gravitating to on the reality front." (Full disclosure: The author of this post is a former colleague of Hamrah's.)

In the case of Pit Boss, which will return for a fifth season (at a rate of two seasons per year) on January 2012, the insight gleaned from the TCD, says Animal Planet president and GM Marjorie Kaplan, is that "people are looking to reconnect with their deeper, truer selves through the natural world, and animals are a medium for that." This summer, Ong and Hamrah released a Summer/Fall 2011 edition of the TCD. Its tagline: "Analyzing over 600 Unscripted Shows Across 40+ Networks. Now with NEW Decoder Index Scoring System."

For more evidence of the TCD's influence on reality TV, read Linda Ong's Simple Truth blog. In a 2009 blog post, she announced:

"Parts cultural anthropology, trend forecasting and cool hunting, semiotics research has long been used by consumer product behemoths to guide product development and package design. But media companies have yet to embrace this methodology. The ones that do will build their brands and drive programming, marketing and sales – because they'll know what consumers are often unable (or unwilling) to articulate via traditional methods.

We may not be able to read minds. But we can see the signs."

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | No Comments »

For the love of lycra

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Superheroes, cyclists and Trekkies all have one thing in common. Spandex. An inconspicuous anagram of ‘expands’ (though rightly so, since the fibre can reportedly stretch – prepare yourself – up to six hundred percent!!), spandex was invented by a man called Joe Shriver at DuPont in 1959. In the UK, it is almost generically referred to as Lycra. But the assumption superheroes wear spandex isn’t quite right. And that’s not because Batman, these days, wears Kevlar.

The earliest superhero comics (such as Superman in 1938) actually pre-date the invention of spandex by two decades. Dupont did, however, have a nice line in nylon stockings round about that time. Captain America’s patriotic array (1941) perhaps owes more to the tradition of hosiery than even he’s been told. Along with super-heroes and heroines, glam metal bands (Queen, Van Halen, Bon Jovi) and travelling contortionists have all helped stretch and sling spandex and its (usually aggressively trademarked) sibling incarnations off the historical trajectory and out towards the wastepaper basket of clothing history.

Except they haven’t. Not nearly. The re-birth of the contemporary Flandrien (or so s/he’d like to think) and its brutal alter-ego the ‘lycra lout’ has anorak-flashed spandex into the eyeballs of an unsuspecting British public once again. What maddens so many people – cyclists and non-cyclists alike – about this trend is the ludicrous aroma of accomplishment that somehow wafts from inside a vacuum-packed bicycle tight out on public parade. Men in Lycra will limb around art galleries and buy sandwiches ‘to stay’ and fetch kittens from trees and they’ll do it all wearing groinal cling-film that manages off-puttingly to show precisely nothing and absolutely everything at exactly the same time. It’s hard to launch a complaint against that kind of contradiction.

But the world of spandex is a wonderful and diverse place. Spandex also lies at the apex of contemporary culture’s anxious compounding of sex and idiocy (Diesel and American Apparel ad campaigns are a case in point), and the normalisation of the fetish that underlies the strange success of Zentai (full-body, skin tight garments that will help you look like Morph from Take Hart without the eyes). There’s a video out there that shows a pitch-invader in an all-green Lycra bodysuit outrunning six lunging security guards and escaping through a small panel at the side of the park held open for him by – wait for it – a compatriot dressed in an all-yellow Lycra bodysuit! I don’t advise you look it up, but I expect you will anyway.

The most interesting examples of contemporary spandexification, though, are those where the material breaks free of its functional imperative and holds its easy-on-easy-off knickers up to the wind. Spandex (or something like it) overlaps with art and architecture in Ernesto Neto’s colourful, tensile installations and Agata Olek’s crocheted fibre-art. Jean Nouvelle’s Serpentine Pavilion (2010) ended up as a sort of three dimensional awning, and solar canopies have an important role to play in the future of squeaky green dwelling. There’s Richard Serra’s wafer-thin boundary installations, too.

So we’re in for a stretchy future, and I for one am bloody excited. Not that I want city folk on their way to the office to carry on dressing like Alberic Schotte. I think they’ve met their match in the Zentai warriors anyway. The Zentai don’t take themselves too seriously, always seem to have anonymous pals around the corner, and are surprisingly sneaky considering how conspicuous they really ought to be. Practically the opposite, then, of Mr Specialized Allez. I’d call for a public ruckus, but a skirmish with so little friction would be too unsettling to properly enjoy.

© Gareth Lewis 2011

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Mild Smiles and Monocultures

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 

The Oslo bombing and massacre of 69 young politicians in the making at the Utoya island youth camp brought far-right extremism in Norway to global attention on 22nd July 2011.  The killer Anders Behring Breivik, smiling mildly, is pictured in the link to this piece.

The shock surrounding these events unfolded partly against the initial media assumption that the explosions would turn out to be the work of Islamist terrorists – also against received wisdom globally with regard to Scandinavian nations and populations generally being peace-loving and tolerant. This received wisdom has not, of course, always corresponded with the Scandinavian reality nor does it necessarily do so today. The purpose of this short analysis is to point to a more everyday and institutionalized nationalism as evidenced in one image, a photograph of Swedish politician Björn Söder which appeared on the cover of Dagens Nyheter , one of the country’s leading newspapers, in January 2011.

 Sverigesdemokraterna (the Swedish Democrat party) aims to a win between 12 and 15 percent of the votes  in the next election, claims party secretary Björn Söder. The article talks about successes so far and how much money the party is going to receive to support their next election campaign. Some codes and connotations embedded in the accompanying image give a good example of how photography, often working subconsciously, can impact on collective consciousness.

In the picture we see a strong, apparently healthy and wholseome, youthful looking man from the Swedish white middle class. He looks into the camera with a mild smile that signifies openness, empathy, an implicit benevolence. There is nothing here of the alien, the dangerous, the Other in any sense. This is coded as a Swedish cultural norm, in the guise of complete harmlessness. 

In the photograph Björn Söder’s clothing is formal and elegant – these are the vestimentary codes of Swedish bank clerks, lawyers and politicians.    He wears dark suit with a modern silk tie, the colour of which matches the blue of his eyes. His hair cut overlays on this a note of trendiness for young men. He is half bald not in a depleted (cup half empty) way but in a way that speaks of robust and confident contemporary masculinity. The contrast between the mild expression and strong body is again a contemporary code for aspirational Swedish manhood.

The picture shot from below places the reader in an implicitly subordinate position and so creates an idealizing effect for its subject. Björn Söder´s photo is also taken indoors in a large dark room – and some of the lights are on. The most striking of these is the lamp on the ceiling which suggests a halo over the politician’s head. Suddenly the party secretary secretary is elevated to a kind of semiotic sainthood, an aura of sanctity accruing to someone who could be a kind of everyday version of an angel from heaven.

This photograph could form the basis of an interesting semiotic case study. It is an equivalent from today to the kind of thing Roland Barthes picked up on in Mythologies in the 1950s – photographic realism appearing to open an innocent ‘window on to reality’ while constructing a clearly ideological message, albeit one that sits comfortably with what all ‘normal’ people think, what is ideologically incontestable because culturally it goes without saying. To an outsider this might all appear to be accidental or innocent enough. However Björn Söder’s party won seats in the Swedish parliament for the first time in latest election, pursuing a programme that criticizes immigration policy and that fights to keep Sweden pure from the ‘dirtiness’ of a multicultural society.   Young men like Anders Behring Breivik, the Utoya killer, emerge from a backdrop of a more routine and insidious cultural conservatism. The mild smile and halo of the Northern angel may easily, for readers who identify with an emerging ethnic and cultural diversity. mask what feels, ironically, closer to a diabolic intent.  

© Martha Arango  2011

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Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

This is about seeing Las Vegas through Antipodean eyes. I grew up in UK and I’ve been in New Zealand for thirteen years; I have bias. My move to New Zealand gave me new software. I’d like to show you the value, often overlooked, of reading culture ‘superficially,’ to deconstruct and then take the ‘superficial read’ more seriously.

Kiwis (New Zealanders) have a phrase ‘it’s bloody pointless.” They use it with gusto and pride when laughing at what they perceive as pretence. (For example excessive displays of wealth or the sight of an LA woman carrying a dog in a handbag.) New Zealand’s early pioneering history was all about celebrating being canny, frugal, cunning and almost mean. It took three months for ‘the boat’ to arrive in New Zealand from England with supplies. Being adaptable and making things work was an essential life skill. New Zealanders are uncomfortable about shows of wealth or excess – even today national heroes are understated and All Blacks (the iconic New Zealand rugby team) are often seen as ‘wooden’.

So as a by now cultural if not ethnic New Zealander, I look at Vegas for the first time and say “ it is big and mad, a party town designed for no reason in particular.”  I say the casinos are insane and all those clichés seem true. The place is like the postcard – what a pleasant change. In fact, it is more extreme when you get there – the signs are bigger, the scale is bigger and there are more people. A Kiwi read would be: “it’s even more flash than I thought””. To the average New Zealander the excess compared to the down to earth nature of home seems unnecessary, ridiculous, alien – yet irresistible.

As a semiotician one looks at Vegas and quickly makes some simple observations. I am not going to say anything revolutionary or challenging, Rather I want to remind us of what Vegas means to many of us.

Vegas is magic at many levels: money magic, impossible civilisation, the deification of money and the cult of the celebrity. We are used to working for money; as a result instant wealth is magical. Vegas means impossible civilisation, an ‘unplace’ place – an urban oasis in the desert. Vegas means everyday opulence. The sheer scale of the copies of global symbols (e.g. a third scale model of the Eiffel Tower) and the size of the casinos is abnormal and yet I got used to it. Vegas appears to deify money. The casinos use signs that remind us of Greek temples. They mimic an archutectural design language of authority. Vegas is also awash with celebrities and celebrity status. An anchor for all of this is gold – as internal decor signature for casinos and symbol for winning big.

For New Zealanders gold has different cultural connotations, which can help us understand their perception of Vegas as “bloody pointless”. “Good as gold”, for Kiwis, communicates the trustworthy, steady, everyday nature of gold as something that was part of the early society of mining towns. The phrase is often to compliment someone who does what they say. “I’ve done X”, reply “Good as Gold.”  New Zealand, like parts of the West Coast of America, had a gold rush.  In the early mining days gold was to be trusted in a hostile world. Early mining museums portray the extremely difficult circumstances early miners endured in mining settlements in and around Arrowtown. It appears the idea of gold as glamour or striking gold never took hold as strongly in New Zealand society. (Look, for example, at http://www.destination.co.nz/arrowtown/)

Hopefully the superficial Kiwi response “it’s bloody pointless” has more significance for you now. At the same time this short phrase summarises so much depth for New Zealanders, who communicate much with so little. Kiwiss aren’t ones for complex wordplay which can be taken to indicate that they aren’t as ‘deep’. it’s fair to say this stereotype of Antipodeans as more basic, at some level, holds true for most Western cultures. And the male language of behaviour in New Zealand is indeed about a doing which is much more important than saying. Many New Zealand men, for example, ‘do friendship’ rather than ‘say it’ – more Peircean groundedness than Saussurean arbitrary signification.

Western culture encodes at many levels an insidious mutually exclusive opposition between the ‘basic’ and the ‘deep’, privileging the latter term, But ‘basic’ or ‘superficial’ is a different kind of semiotic language – and it takes a time to understand.

Winner of the Hugo Boss Art Prize Hans Peter Feldman standing in front of $100,000 pinned to gallery walls

At a macro level, I have a hunch that the meaning of money is evolving as it becomes less tangible. So the idea of Vegas being pointless, at some level, means money is pointless. (Vegas = Gold = Money.)  George Ng commented on the Linked In Semiotic Thinking Group that Graeber turns the history of money on its head. Unlike the way economists view history, where most accept that first come barter,then money, and later credit, Graeber's contention is credit existed first then came money as a means to break up credit into smaller parts, which then led to social practice of bartering.

Since first developing these thoughts I’ve become aware of a company setting up a global barter system (http://www.recipco.com/) to make use of the idle excessive resource available to companies globally. It could be said that if they succeed they are changing the meaning of bartering from something done in Moroccan markets to something more corporate and respectable. Money will be replaced by the true direct measure of the resources themselves. If that happens, we face a new world order and money, truly will be pointless and perhaps Kiwis will have the last laugh on Vegas. “Money will be bloody pointless”. But what resource will winning casino chips get you there? Don’t we just replace one currency with another?

© Jake Pearce  2011

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Gareth

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I am in my bedroom which is on the eleventh floor of a block of flats on the Brighton seafront. My room looks out over the city and the sun is on its way down. I’ve just finished watching a programme about baleen whales and am about to sit down and write for a bit. My bedroom walls are covered with Post-Its because I’m researching and writing a novel. It’s a technique I nicked from Will Self whose own writing room looks a bit like the nest made by Eugene Victor Tooms in the X-Files. A photographer called Phil Grey has exhaustively documented that room, and I have an unhealthy fascination with those photographs. You could say I am building a shrine to them. 

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time? 

I was in a pub with an ex-girlfriend. She mentioned her brother was involved with something called commercial semiotics and I thought it sounded interesting. I looked it up on the internet later that evening and sent some emails. Rob Thomas at Practical Semiotics was the first person who took me on. I worked for Rob for about two years. We’re still good friends.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to the point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in English literature and philosophy. I have a masters in sociology and cultural theory. In other words I’m academically indecisive and habitually plump for the combo options. I started full time with Space Doctors in 2010, and work alongside people with backgrounds in illustration, bio-chemistry, design, literary theory, marketing and some Narnian mixtures of the lot. I'm rather glad I didn't over-specialise in the end.

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

I don’t believe commercial semiotics is about treating the architecture of a cough sweet in the same way that you’d think about narrative structure in The Good Soldier. Not yet, anyway. The commercial world is certainly evolving in the right direction from a communications point of view. That’s partly as a result of insights gleaned from semiotics (also expanding its horizons, I should add). But I think at this stage we’re still talking about multiple genres of meaning making. I also don’t think it hurts to have an opinion. Commercial semioticians are basically in the business of explaining why one thing is obsolete and uninteresting and another fresh and compelling. I’d say there’s a healthy degree of snobbery involved in that process.

Tell us about your novel.

It’s about a chess player and an automata engineer. They unwittingly get involved in a corrupt chess tournament that takes place in a spooky church in Prague. I’m hoping reading it will be like watching an episode of Scooby Doo backwards. I'm planning a predictable reveal right at the off. The whole thing is inspired by the Shipping Forecast.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

This sculpture is called The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age, and it was made by Raoul Hausmann in 1920. The image adorns the cover of a recent book by Lydia Liu called The Freudian Robot, which uses literary, information and psychoanalytic theory to argue how and why we’ve made machines in our own image. Liu heads up the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, and TFR is the best work of non-fiction I've read this year. Comparative Literature seems to me to be doing away with conventional academic distinctions altogether. I find this kind of cross-disciplinary approach to research and comprehension genuinely exciting. I also think this method bears some resemblance to the way commercial semioticians typically approach, filter and cluster cultural information. Blue whales, according to the programme I just watched, do a similar sort of thing with krill. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?  What role will semiotics be playing in your life?

That depends a lot on what the world of semiotics looks like ten years from now. I see it heading in some really interesting directions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be a part of that.

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Dynamic essentialism

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Until recently, the beauty category has been all about dualist metaphysics – constantly reworking the Cartesian opposition between mind and matter, culture and nature.

One main strand – exemplified by ‘disciplinarian’ brands like L’Oréal or Pantene – gives us beauty as the conquest of nature. Here, the brand performs the role of aesthetic policeman, whipping into shape nature’s unruly materiality.

Then there are the opponents of this approach – the likes of Dove – who flip it on its head, calling for the liberation of natural imperfection from culture’s rigid standards.

On the surface, there are two radically different stances here: the one pro-culture, and the other pro-nature. But in fact, both perspectives operate within the same metaphysical arena. Neither challenges the view that nature is raw and imperfect, while culture has the monopoly on aesthetics and form.

Today, that’s changing. Many brands now talk about continuity between nature and culture, moving towards an idea of aesthetic form as inherent to biological process – not as the superimposition of an external template.

As an example, we could take the rise of intelligent or adaptive foundations, often described as drawing out skin’s immanent beauty, rather than masking nature with a cultural overlay. Here, nature doesn’t precede art: it’s already art – just needing a little activation or elucidation.

This development sees beauty break with Cartesian dualism to find a new philosophical source in Spinoza. For this 17th-century metaphysician, there’s no opposition between nature and culture, only a single Substance that expresses itself in different ways.

Spinozan Substance can become thought or physical process: it doesn’t matter, as both follow the same patterns and dynamics, playing out on the same plane. And every mode of the Substance, whether it’s an idea, a person or a ‘skin type’, never stops trying to be itself as fully as possible, rather than pursuing an external ideal.

This idea of fullness of expression, rather than perfectionist teleology, has also become key in beauty symbolism. Beauty language now talks more about ‘revealing’ than ‘improving’ – as in the Spinozan idea that every mode of the Substance strives solely for the full expression of itself, not for externally-driven transformation.

But while Spinoza does give us essentialist metaphysics, he certainly wouldn’t have gone for Dove-style essentialism, which involves a static, anti-aspirational idea of ‘real beauty’ (self-acceptance, flaws and all).

Instead, his is a dynamic essentialism, in which essence constantly strives and aspires, but only to become more and more fully itself.


© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

The latest genre to send ratings soaring on British TV is ‘structured reality’ – often described as an amalgam of reality and drama. Series such as The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) and Made in Chelsea feature people playing themselves, but in scripted or semi-scripted scenarios.

The emergence of structured reality marks a response to the cultural pressures and contradictions which sank the earlier reality landmark Big Brother.

When Big Brother was first screened on British TV in 2000, it was partly rooted in the slacker genre of the 1990s. Reality was represented as baggy, loose and unstructured – about endlessly hanging out and discussing trivia.

Although housemates did face the occasional task or challenge, the idea of reality here mostly opposed narrative structure and dramatic action. It enacted the postmodern undoing of ‘plot’: the liberation of trivia from over-arching narrative.

Also in keeping with the slacker genre, early Big Brother represented people in an ‘off duty’, function-less state. The house was a suspended, abstract environment, which cut its occupants off from the personal or professional identities they held in the outside world.

But as the years rolled on and slacker culture waned, Big Brother found itself unable to maintain the loose and non-prescriptive reality it staged in its first season.

Levels of intervention, manipulation and narrative twists increased – clashing with the idea that the house was meant to offer an open-ended, experimental environment in which outcomes would be unpredictable (although ideally involving sex of some sort).

Last year, the programme finally did collapse under the contradiction, as ratings fell and Channel 4 announced the 2010 season would be its last. Big Brother lives on, but only just – having been bought by a smaller channel.

And as its popularity waned, so structured reality rose to take its place, bringing in a new idea of reality compatible with overt scripting and management.

For example, in contrast to the ‘off-duty self’ represented in early Big Brother, structured reality gives us the professionalised ‘always-on self’. Coherent and self-coincident, the ‘always-on self’ flows seamlessly between on and off-screen life, reflecting the way social media are undoing the boundaries between private and public identity.

The stars of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea are, effectively, specialists at being themselves. And there’s a clear connection here with the quasi-professional identity management encouraged by today’s social-media discourse.

11 years ago, Big Brother represented reality as an experiment. And, of course, the idea behind an experiment is that no-one knows what’s going to happen (however much manipulation was going on behind the scenes). It was the possibility of surprise and inconsistency – best of all, lapses and slips of every kind – that kept viewers interested.

Structured reality expresses the opposite: a managed vision of reality and identity that reflects wider cultural changes – in particular, the rise of the transparent, ‘always-on self’  that’s the same at work, at home and at play.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Having recently written a paper on semiotics and digital for a conference, i have started to consider the future development of the logotype. Logos are neat condensations of meaning, that have always been of interest to me. Sad that there is a curious paucity of good books on the subject. Coffee table compendiums packed with examples abound but little analysis of meaning. Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup is the exception and it contains a good dose of semiotic theory. In it he writes: “identification, description and the creation of value are just some of the possible functions of a trademark”. It is my contention that creation of value will increasingly play a greater part in logo futures as they become a more active currency in the digital economy of signs. One reason for this is that the original identification function of logos may be rendered superfluous by a policy aware web in which digital authentication widgets, designed to cut out impostors and spam, do it for us.

So, what possible future scenarios can be imagined for logos? Well, looking at present trends, corporations are already commissioning redesigned collateral to cultivate more biddable, agile, responsive and less monolithic identities.

It seems that logos are gradually becoming more metaphorical and less metonymic (a radical aspect of the London 2012 Olympic logo, for all its sins).

This has meant evolving logos that are both more diffuse and more multi-faceted. Witness the diaphanous new Mastercard logo and the recent re-branding of Tassimo with faded petals. These are rudimentary harbingers of less condensed and more diffuse logos, dispersed across space and lattice strut. An extreme version of this is the MIT Media logo that features 3 intersecting spotlights which can be arranged into 40,000 potential permutations with 12 colour combinations. This is a facet of de-materialization – from the Marxian perspective it parallels the more fungible, quicksilver nature of financial capital and electronic flows. Many logos still hark back to their origins as either heraldic emblems where the shield motif symbolically circumscribed meanings or to monogram signatures that were often cryptic and occluding. Condensation may be discarded in favour of tessellated brand motifs that ubiquitously mark branding; running through it like a stick of rock.

Personalization may be another driver, as per the book the Filter Bubble which shows how each of us is already enveloped in a unique digital habitus that insidiously determines the cocktail of news and content they are exposed to. As digital communication feeds off a flow of real time data supplied by RFID and other sensors that pick up consumer signatures, a logo could inflect corporate identity in a more fluid way such that it could both embrace the milieu in which it appears and address prospects appropriately. I believe that logos may become interpretative actors in their own light, interacting with other digital entities around them in ways that create edutainment and more ebullience. This may mean that logos will function far beyond their originally remit of identification and more active avatars. As artificial intelligence progresses apace logos may become ingratiating envoys for digital brands.

Scott Brinker has argued that as data becomes more semantic and meaningful ‘data branding’ or the making available of proprietary company data under creative commons protocols will be employed as a competitive advantage. This is because they will be amenable to being useful mash-ups.

In this scenario it is possible to imagine the logo as pulsating with bits of data pulled from the data cloud and morphing as the data stream oscillates. This ides of real time data modeling, for instance correlating sales and trend data has already been dubbed ‘nowcasting’ in a 2009 Google white paper. The most apt application I believe would be for the logo to reflect the real time fortunes of the brand. Some formula for symbolic investment, perhaps a Semiotic Value Index metric can be implanted into the code for logos, allowing them to wax and wane in concert with the stock price, sentiment online and other basketed indices? This would be in tune with the passion for infographics, make logos more dynamic and allow for greater transparency – one for the big brave brands. Finally, another evolution for the logo might eventually be total evanescence into an invisible meme or force field that leaves engrams in the minds of prospects helping them recall brands. This would mean logos would have come full circle – literally leaving a neural mark.

Whilst all this may seem like science fiction I believe that these visions are not so far fetched because they are merely extrapolations and combinations of drivers already afoot: digital de-materialization, continuing acquiescence vs privacy intrusions, personalization of brands (Nike ID) content consumption mediated via social graphs and the filter bubble with the semantic web and cleverer data and augmented space to come, bringing a coterminous desire for cute infographics and real time dashboards to represent data patterns.

One thing is for sure, logos will be both fleeter on their feet and semiotically more active than at present. They will make today’s logos look like stodgy and archaic ciphers that petrify meanings in mute monologues. So much for my visions for the future of the logo. At any rate, I predict that logos will be active agents traversing the seething domains of the semiosphere and will start to play a role in ecologies of augmented space replete with semiotic information of all types. As Peirce said, signs have a tendency to grow or even to perfuse.

© Chris Arning  2011

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Mahatma Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. The design pays tribute to his life and achievements. The top of the cap and cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton – one of the symbols of Indian independence. The colour white is a reference to truth and peace, while the Mandarin garnet represents the orange colour that is part of the Indian flag. The nib shows an image of Mahatma Gandhi, walking with a stick. In addition, the limitation of the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000 is symbolic for the masses of people who followed him during his fight for independence.” Mont Blanc website

 

July 2011

Dear Bapuji [Bapu means father in Hindi, and Bapuji is a respectful, affectionate term for Gandhi in India], 

I would lie if I said that the first sight of this Mont Blanc ink pen did not catch my fancy. On the surface it seemed very nice and befitting…Mont Blanc, the iconic brand of writing instruments, paying tribute to your life and achievements. But that was just my first reaction. When I read further about this ‘Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000’ something did not seem right – either to my Indian heart or to my branding mind.

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

Bapuji, you are no Amitabh Bachchan endorsing any and every product.  Bapuji, you are my Bapu, the father of my nation. Maybe I am sounding like an emotional, patriotic Indian.  Let me put on my branding hat and objectively view the case of Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi coming together. After all, there’s got to be a sync between the two brand identities to create meaningful synergies. 

Yes, I do see a basic match at the functional level.  Bapu, you wrote profusely and demonstrated the power of the pen to the world. It seems appropriate for the top international brand of writing instruments to pay you a tribute.

But what about the brand fit at the core values and vision level? Is there a match between Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi at the philosophical and cultural level?

Gandhiji, to get to the core essence of your life philosophy, I poured over your words verbatim in Mohan-Mala [an anthology of Gandhi’s thoughts and writings]. You wrote:

 “The dream I want to realize is not the spoliation of the property of private owners, but to restrict its enjoyment so as to avoid all pauperism, consequent discontent and the hideously ugly contrast that exists today between the lives and surroundings of the rich and poor.”  Mohan-Mala, 1929

 Doesn’t the very concept of a limited edition for only 3000 exclusive owners defy your dream? If I am buying an ink pen for a whopping price of Rs 1,161,145, where am I restricting its enjoyment? Am I not sharpening the contrast even between the super-rich and the poor?

I appreciate the fact that the product design for the Monc Blanc Limited Edition took inspiration from the spindle. But does Mont Blanc really know what the spinning wheel and khadi mean to the people of India?

I claim for the Charkha [spinning wheel], the honor of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and businesslike manner. The Charkha, therefore is not only not useless…but is a useful and indispensable article for every home. It is the symbol of the nation’s prosperity and, therefore, freedom. It is a symbol not of commercial war but of commercial peace.” Mohan Mala, 1921

How can the charkha be an inspiration for Mont Blanc whose DNA goes against entering every home. Bapu, is this not a superficial use of such a deep and profound symbol? 

I ask, what does a luxury item catering to only 3000 individuals have anything to do with your values of equality, simplicity, minimalism and economic freedom?  Bapu, you penned these words in 1921:

“Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful.Thus, the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour.” Mohan Mala, Oct 1921

I respect Mont Blanc’s intent to pay tribute to your life and achievement. But it hurts me to see you being used as a ‘celebrity’ endorsing the epitome of opulence. You are my India. You are the universal spirit of peace, harmony and non-violence in each of us. How can the soul of my country be used as a symbol for pure economic gain?

I ask, where is the match between the ideal of simple living-high thinking and the ultimate expression of high living?

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

The six pack triumphs in India

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Karan Singh Grover

How is the male body represented in Indian popular culture and advertising today? Are there any clear patterns or codes?

The male grooming industry is booming in India, and bringing with it a definite change in the way advertising represents the male body. In general, there has been a move away from the more soft and rounded form of traditional Indian aesthetics, towards the structured, symmetrical body favoured by the ancient Greeks (and by contemporary Western codes of male attractiveness).

In traditional Indian art, the representation of male bodies left out internal structure: it was not about hard muscle and bone. A softer form meant prana – the life force which fills the body in Hindu metaphysics – could move and flow. These art representations highlighted the values of traditional Hindu culture in which the spiritual was prized over the material, and the symbolic representation over realistic depictions. There was an implicit relationship between the divine and the human, and as aligned to the Hindu philosophical tradition and world-view, the spirit of man was seen as a manifestation of the presence of the divine. 

The history of Western art represented the male body very differently, as we can see in Greek aesthetics. Instead of valuing flow and roundedness, the Greeks idealised the perfectly proportioned, sculpted male nude. Ancient Greek sculptors celebrated the spirit of man by glorifying the beauty of internal physical structure. It’s an ideal which has persisted through time in the West and entered the material and consumer culture of today.

Now it’s arrived in India too – the development beginning around the mid-1990s. Before this time, Indian films and advertising generally showed the stars as they were: neither particularly fit, nor well muscled. Their star appeal was not based upon overt display of their body beautiful or aesthetic, but on their personality and charisma more than anything else.

However, in the past decade, as the Greek ideal of the male body has entered popular culture, the stars have started working out, building their bodies up with diets and physical trainers to the Western, muscled aesthetic. There’s also been promotion of the 'six-pack abs' as a body aesthetic to aspire for and work-out towards. We find these depictions in the advertisements for body deodorant sprays such as Axe and Axe clones. Western material culture has finally conquered the whole world – all men every where, now are urged to aspire to the same template, with minor modifications allowed, to accommodate requirements of race and place.

 

What about when the male body gets really muscled, exceeding the Greek ideal, as does Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan? Does Indian culture read 'big muscles' as a bad-boy signifier, versus the more streamlined physique of 'good guy' Bollywood stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan?

Shah Rukh has a wiry and small physique, but he too worked out and has acquired this new aesthetic. In fact, the publicity around one of his big hit films of two years ago was all about his six-pack abs. 

Salman is seen as a man with a golden heart but an uncontrolled temper and a 'bad boy' in that sense…so he gets angry very easily and when he gets angry, he can get violent. But this isn’t really held against him by the public at large or even his women fans. Overall, my take is that this new body aesthetic is far more about dialling up the sex appeal and attractiveness of the man and far less about signalling a renewed focus on male physical strength and power – machismo. Instead, it signals an intent to promote the male grooming industry.

But could there be a political dimension to India’s newly muscular male body? For instance, could it be symptomatic of what’s been called India’s 'muscular Hinduism', and the recent focus on warrior heroes such as Rama?

Sociologists have written about the development of a more fierce and virile version of Hinduism in Hindutva along with Hindutva's attempt to refocus the Hindu pantheon around the virile hero-gods, Krishna and Rama. However, Hindutva's appeal waxes and wanes. It grew in the early nineties and then the Hindu right wing party lost successive elections – now they are a weak force in the opposition. Also, each state and region in India as well as each community continues to worship their favourite Hindu God and new temples that are being built also reflect this diversity. For instance, the worship of Lord Ram is particularly strong in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but far weaker in other States. So, I do not really see the depiction of this muscled male body and the new sexy aesthetic as connected to the strength, or otherwise, of Hindutva. It is far more part of a commercial attempt to sexualize the appeal of men and women via marketing.

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global/Local, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Rebooting

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

 

In recent years, I've stumbled frequently upon a fascinating, somewhat difficult-to-read trope in US pop culture and edgier communications. It's an expression of a peculiar attitude vis-à-vis bygone social and cultural forms and norms, trends and fashions, movements and pop culture franchises — one which was far less common 20 or even 10 years ago.

This perspective on past forms and norms isn't nostalgic — i.e., though it admires the past, it doesn't do so earnestly. Underpinning expressions of this trope we do not find the notion that we're living in the aftermath of a lost Golden Age; the present, it seems, can hold its own against the past. Nor is this perspective or trope ironic — i.e., the past isn't celebrated with an edge of mockery or wink-wink knowingness; the present isn't valued more highly than the past. Neither earnest nor ironic, this mode of grappling with and making use of the past is best described as serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious.

Call this perspective or trope rebooting. Unlike nostalgia, which puts past forms and norms on a pedestal, and unlike retro, which reanimates an antiquated trend or style and forces its spiritless corpse to shuffle about pathetically (the technical term for which is kitsch), rebooting revives the spirit of past forms and norms, trends and styles — taking them seriously enough to make them relevant and contemporary… while playfully deconstructing, recontextualizing, and misappropriating them. I've mused aloud about the philosophical implications of rebooting elsewhere; here, I'll just point to a few examples of what I mean.

1. Rebooted pop-culture franchises like Batman Begins, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek. These recent movies aren't nostalgic, nor are they ironic. They are serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious. They celebrate the spirit of their originals, without succumbing to the anxiety of influence or seeking to establish a (mocking) protective distance. (Note that DC Comics is about to relaunch every single one of its titles — each beginning with issue #1.)

2. The artwork of Shepard Fairey, from his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" viral sticker campaign to the Obama "Hope" poster, appropriates the style of 20th-century political agitprop in way that is neither earnest nor ironic. [See images at top of post.] "I don't want to demean anyone's struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful — that's not my intention," Fairey has explained. His serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious approach is deeply unsettling; he has many critics. Like a more engaged Warhol, Fairey rejects the unspoken assumption that an artist must be original.

3. This Ben Sherman ad, which playfully references the suspenders-wearing style of the 1980s ska fad, without mocking that trend or earnestly glorifying it.

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Making Sense | 2 Comments »

Network: Sam

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I’m at home procrastinating, my flat is messy and the walls are covered with drawings i’ve made. Its a Sunday and a tough time to concentrate with a week of work only just behind me and another one ahead ready for a dizzying ascent. My internet browser is filled with tabs with different bikes on; I have recently become a convert to the cycling faith and am falling fast and deep into an entire new world of knowledge and discernment that is available to confuse and amuse me – seemingly endlessly.

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time?

Many of my family are artists; whether full time or in the corners of their lives (as I am). My father was a painter and his vast abstract expressionist (ish) canvases were a real visual trap for a small boy. However I always remember being troubled by their abstractness, always desperate to garner some sort of meaning from them. I remember one particular painting that hung in our living room that was probably four feet wide by 3 feet tall I remember staring at it intently seeking patterns and figures in its intricate layers of brush marks and spatters.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in religious studies at Edinburgh where I focussed on South Asian religions and anthropological method. My Undergraduate dissertation used popular culture as a source to explore the way that the nation is figured as feminine. In my interview for Added Value I wasn’t particularly excelling before i got all excited trying to relate of Indira Gandhi’s last speeches in which she said “Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation” and the goddess Cinnamasta (worth googling).

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

Don’t be a snob, don’t be partisan when it comes to the world around you; for me working in Cultural Insight at AV is as much about being a fan of Barthes or Judith Williamson as being curious about the way that Grazia is organised, or genuinely interested about the way that yoghurt is advertised. I once tried half seriously to let my boss tell a client that Muller Corner was a Brechtian Yoghurt – she wouldn’t let me. But all I mean to say is that the game of Semiotics is about absorbing and interrogating as much as you can from as many sources as you can.

Tell us about your current academic project.

I’m working on my M.A in material and visual culture course at UCL (definitely worth checking out the course if you don’t know it already). I’m working on a dissertation about commercial semiotics. I’m interested in the way that a discipline that had its origins in deconstruction has become a tool for the construction of meaning. The transition from a discipline that often dealt in ideology, to a commercial discipline that deals with practice. In doing this I’m looking from both a historical perspective, tracing the growth of the industry, and ethnography and interviews to explore the current ways that we relate to theory. I’m interested in the strategies that we use day to day to represent our ‘science’ of representation. What is academic theory for us and clients; is it magic, is it technology, is it pure pragmatism and common sense? If anyone would like to offer their opinions or find out more do get in touch with me, I’d be very grateful to hear what you have to say.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

It’s Ernest Hemingway. I’m new to Hemingway, shamefully. I’m reading A Moveable Feast at the moment as in a month and a half I move to Added Value Paris for a year. Here he is kicking back in Cuba, he’s probably tired from a day of game fishing. I just read him recall saying to a young upstart who was interrupting his concentration whilst writing in a cafe in Paris “At home they’d server you and then break the glass”. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve that level of misanthropy. One of my favourite things about him was that his wife lost an entire suitcase of his manuscripts and carbon copies. Hard work never to be seen again.

What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?  How will semiotics feature in your life by then?

Truthfully I’d like for excellence in commercial semiotics not to be the sum achievement of the next ten years of my life. I’d like to have gotten to Z in the alphabetical publication that I run (www.orsomethingorsomething.co.uk) and I’d like to have had some of my writing published, I’m 24, I have a moustache – of course I want to be a novelist. 

Image from: http://matthewasprey.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/ernest_hemingway1.jpg

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Not so innocent

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The on-going trend for Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations is unmistakable. After Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, versions of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk are all in the offing.

The rediscovery of fairy tales clearly draws much of its lifeblood from the recent vampirecraze. But the fairy tale is as much about nature as it is about the supernatural: woodlands as well as witches play a starring role. And its revival reflects, not just an on-going taste for the otherworldly, but a change in the way we symbolise nature itself.

Film adaptations such as Red Riding Hood draw out the darker and more disturbing facets of the fairy-tale genre, moving away from Disney childishness and schmaltz into a sexualised and sinister register. In doing so, they echo the darker ‘naturalness’ coming to the fore in the wider cultural context.

When the idea of naturalness first became big in branding and marketing, it was very much about being clean and pure – no evil toxins or hidden nasties. Here, nature is sweet and childlike: an escape from the moral and physical pollution of urban life. The brand name ‘Innocent Drinks’ says it all, as does the stream of naturalness advertising that uses childish fonts and a faux-naïf copy style.

But emerging naturalness brings out a darker and more powerful vision of nature – akin to the sinister woods of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.

For instance, natural beauty products no longer have to be about pretty, attractive sensorials or pure, innocent symbolic framing. Extreme, challenging or even toxic ingredients are coming to the fore: snail gel, mushrooms, snake poison and bee sting venom all feature in recently-acclaimed products.

As with film’s current interest in the not-so-innocent fairytale, naturalness may well be returning to darker sources in northern European magic and shamanism. And this in turn reflects an environmental politics which asks people to rediscover their own natural environment: to stay at home, walk in their own woods, and look to their own local and seasonal traditions.

Of course, the escapist faux-exotica of brands like Herbal Essences is still around. But it now sits alongside an idea that the rotting mushroom or potent berry may be more effective and transformative still than the imported tropical fantasy or regressive Edenism.  

It’s clear that the cultural view of naturalness has taken on a darker edge, no longer just pretty and pure, but powerful and morally ambiguous. Like the fairytale, it walks a tightrope between the toxic and the therapeutic, rather than offering simplistic ‘cleansing’ from urban dirt.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | No Comments »

Local Alternatives

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Spring is at its height and the beer brands’ battle for the consumer mind and throat is becoming ferocious in Bulgaria. Here I’d like to look at two much discussed advertising campaigns. One is based on a clever idea realised by the Shumensko brand, part of the Carlsberg company portfolio, The other is a more problematic ad – for Zagorka, owned by leading Dutch brand Heineken. What the two campaigns have in common is a global-local axis of interest, but explored through very different signifiers. 

Nowadays neither of these brands remains exactly Bulgarian in terms of ownership but both still play to a local image and values included in it.  The flagship brands of the two owner companies – Heineken, on the one hand, Carlsberg (and Tuborg) on the other, feature ads that are recognizably international rather than local, deploying global codes of cosmopolitan lifestyle, football, music etc.

The plot of the current Zagorka ad demonstrates that almost everything that surrounds us in our everyday life in Bulgaria comes from different parts of the globe – the jeans are American, the boss is a Spaniard, the car is German.  And you actually interact with the whole world from morning till evening but at the end of the day you can enjoy the ‘Bulgarian’ beer. The slogan tells us that Zagorka is “a Bulgarian beer of world-class quality”.  Here we can see the direction of meaning creation moving from the global towards the local. The key signifier (see the picture, above) is an ordinary guy of today, who lives his life participating in a globalized world. Whether globalisation is right or wrong, if we accept it or disapproved of it , is not at issue here. It exists and the ad reflects that.

But something has clearly gone wrong in the attempt to communicate this message positively. Some forum and blog comments online have been scathing in their criticism of Zagorka’s approach to spreading the ‘local’ message.  It is well known that this is an old Bulgarian brand but now under foreign ownership and a local exemplar of globalisation. Zagorka has struggled in recent years and changed it campaigns, having prior to that deployed forceful (implicitly nationalistic) signifiers of Bulgarian identity and pride (see for example this execution from around 2006). There seems to be something at once half-hearted and intriusively exploitative about the current attempt to get the best of both worlds in relation to the global-local dichotomy. It doesn’t ring true. The protagonist doesn’t even look Bulgarian.

It was no surprise then, and very much in keeping with the drift of the online discussion, when an alleged forerunner of this ad was recently spotted on YouTube – using the same plot for another Heineken brand in the Slovakian market some years ago. Of course, the average consumer is not so anxious about the origin or the originality of the ad but undoubtedly any remaining engagingness the campaign might have had has been further compromised by the publicity around this. Here apparently is a potential formula for mechanically reproducing ‘localness’ globally wherever you go – and with its disclosure in Bulgaria a sense of anything authentically ‘local’ about the communication may have left the stage altogether.

The case of the Shumensko spot demonstrates the reverse direction of meaning creation – from local towards global. Drawing on the great success of Facebook in Bulgaria this ad connects the idea of people’s togetherness implemented in this virtual context with the social life in which a beer has played its part for many years now. So using black-and-white visual codes of the silent movie, Shumensko communicates tradition through a series of scenes from Bulgarian social life in the early 20th century – making humorous comparisons between these and Facebook activities such as ‘changing profiles’ (5 or 6 men are in serious fight), ‘joining an interest group’ (men plotting a rebellion), ‘writing on someone’s wall’ (two guys relieving themselves against Petrov’s factory wall). And so on. In relation to this last detail, there is something about a beer ad which shows two men outdoors pissing against a wall which, in defiance of all bland lowest common denominator global communication codes, triumphantly signals time, place, authenticity, comradeship, down to earth humour and a sense of the local which feels at the same time universal in its comic scope.

The spot finishes presenting people with thumbs up and the slogan: “Shumensko – The Bulgarian social network since 1882”. This hits the bull’s eye. Where Zagoska’s falters while attempting something similar, Sumensko achieves consistency, cohesion and texture in combining the global with the local – using local history, the brand’s tradition and presence in the local market and the Bulgarian success of Facebook to assert a localness which is confident and at ease with itself. All held together by a humour which is straightforward, locally sensitive and nuanced – and a dominant code everywhere communicating a relaxation and friendship for which beer is one of the best-loved universal signifiers.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Enter the Samurai

Monday, April 25th, 2011


 

Wristwatch advertisements found in glossy magazines depict their male (and, in the case of tennis players like Maria Sharapova, female) subjects as modern samurai, of the type described in H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia.

The protagonist of that 1905 science-fiction novel describes "certain men and women of a distinctive costume and bearing" who constitute an austere order charged with directing world affairs from behind the scenes. The samurai, "with faces strengthened by discipline and touched with devotion," are doctors, lawyers, engineers, authors, and other accomplished men and women; they wear simple black clothes, and travel the world lightly. In ads for watches manufactured by Tag Heuer, Bulova, and Breitling, we find today's samurai posed in airports and lofts and streets that could be anywhere in the world; they are ready for whatever happens.

Now comes a blog, Everyday Carry, dedicated to "a lifestyle, discipline, or philosophy of preparedness." EDC's readers submit photos of those small items and gadgets which they wear or carry on daily basis, whether to manage common tasks or for use in emergency situations. The astonishing panoply of minitools, cameras, flashlights, pens, Blackberries, lighters, and (yes) wristwatches on display at EDC suggest that the samurai ideal (as lifestyle, though most likely not style of life) is very much alive today.

Just don't try getting those knives through security, folks.

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Monday, April 18th, 2011

“Who’s afraid of Twitter?” asks an anti-Mubarak sign on a best-of-protest website, “Egypt you inspire us all” says another. Social and political change is in motion. Novel political placard ideas are evaluated online as if they were new ads or brand catchphrases. 

Brands repay the compliment. A model waves something like a burning draft card. This is John Frieda’s ‘Frizz Revolution’.  We want anti-frizz serum and we want it now.  More earnestly the UK Co-op’s website bids “Join the Revolution”, with social enterprise-style community projects and a retail offer ranging from ethical fish and fair trade chocolate to funerals. Backed by a history, since 1844, of “everyday people working together to build a business that would change the world”. 

After poll tax riots and no-logo marches in the past, protests against capitalism in general and bankers specifically, current public services cuts and increased educational fees in UK are contributing to a renewed culture of protest and dissent. Will media, from the BBC to Sky and News International, regard protest by what's called a new ‘lost generation’ at home as favourably as they have that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? How will these glimpses of activist or revolutionary codes in brand communications, echoing daringly engagé ads put out by the likes of Fuji Film and Benetton in the 90s, develop this time around?

The World in 2011, The Economist’s look ahead for this year, predicted no serious disruption in Egypt or Libya (“Qaaddafi has held power for 40 years and will certainly complete 41 … he has removed all significant threats to his rule”). The prospects for UK, meanwhile, looked more problematic: “Deep austerity, the price for bank rescues and fiscal stimulus, will raise social tensions and spark industrial action”.  But “a national sense of inevitability", the prediction continued, "means most will grin and bear it”.

In December 2010 the UK media showed pictures of a horrified Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (AKA Charles and Camilla) cowering behind the windscreen of their Rolls Royce as protestors approached chanting, according to the Daily Telegraph, "Off with their heads!".  In true press parlance and unlike their counterparts in North Africa, these protestors were characterised as a 'mob'.  Evidently an ironically detached and, in typical English style, good-humoured mob if the chant's intertextual evoking of Alice in Wonderland is anything to go by.  Anyone intent on more serious damage or cutting closer to the royal bone would have opted for "Remember the Romanovs".  But by April 2011 with a Royal Wedding impending and the prospect of streets joyfully thronged rather than unrulily mobbed these dark concerns are at least momentarily behind us.

And the spark from North Africa could yet jump to Europe.  In what form, who can guess?  Portugal’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held on May 10th this year, is ‘A luta é alegria’ (The struggle is joy) which won on the popular telephone vote after being unanimously rejected by the TV expert panel. Performed by motley collective Homens de la Luta (People of the Struggle) this invokes for today the spirit of the Summer of ’68. In Ireland, like Portugal and in its own way UK a serious casualty of the crisis, there are variously calls to go back and reconfigure the Republic along the lines of the socialist principles some of the founders advocated back in 1921 and – at the other end of the radical spectrum – iconoclastic cultural productions from the likes of Limerick's hit band Rubber Bandits, who take punk bad taste to transcendent levels of carnivalesque awfulness (with possibly unwelcome product placement for Mitsubishi and the Honda Civic). However this pans out there are clearly alternatives around to grinning and bearing it. 

Commercial semioticians have been busy in recent years helping brands understand how they might engage with a now long list of concerns that emerged and were beyond the horizons marketers and corporations had been traditionally concerned with: social responsibility, fair trade, sustainability, co-creation and the power of social networks – now the aftermath of severe financial crisis and spending cuts.  In UK specifically there is today a lower prospect of children moving during their lifetime out of the social class they were born into than has existed since before the 1960s. Which might indicate to a neutral observer either a major systemic flaw or the existence of some kind of self-perpetuating elite with its own segregated health and education services and an indifference to democratic opportunities except the narrowest and most technical sense.  At which I hear a baying mob of media types nearing the street below my window chanting "political correctness gone mad!".  

We eagerly await the summer of 2011.  No predictions.  But in UK we always think it's nice if it's long and hot.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

(If you take nothing else out of this piece do check out the link to the Rubber Bandits video clip for 'Horse Outside'  (be warned it's catchy, you won't stop singing it in your head for 4 months) but I'd advise that you draw the line at 'Bag of Glue'.  Unless you like Rammstein – and if you've never heard of them please ignore this; you'll be better off for it).

Reference

The Economist, The World in 2011 (published late 2010)

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Shamanic small ads

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Korean Shamanism is rooted in ancient folk religions and dates back at least 40,000 years. The shaman has a special ability to make connections as a mediator between the human world and the spiritual world. Most Korean shamans are women and in some cases, they got the ability when they were very young. There are two types of shaman. Some are understood to inherit Shamanic skills within the family, others through a call from the spirit world. Shamans hold a special ceremony (gut) or give a fortune-telling, to deliver good fortune for their clients or heal unidentified illnesses. Traditionally the shamans also hold an annual gut to propitiate gods of the village or locality. Each shaman is a specialist of some kind. Some are good at healing the souls of the dead, for example, while others can predict the future -while others again are good at the yearly ceremony to exorcise the town.

The integration of shamanism into daily life in South Korea is reflected in brand communications and popular culture.  The image on the right is a famous comedy talk show, where the set design is based on a shaman’s shrine. The host, in costume, plays the role of a shaman and the guest acts as a client seeking a solution to a problem. Shamanism is also a widespread theme in Korean films and teledramas. The centre image was used in Compaq computer advertising some years ago, supporting the claim that the functionality matches that of a shaman.  Odd as this may seem as a hi-tech metaphor it signals the strength of continuing belief in the power of the shaman – unlike corresponding ‘magic’ hi-tech metaphors in the West, Korean shamanism in this context is still connected with a culture that maintains literal belief in the underlying spiritual forces.

For anyone unaware of this living connection with Shamanism, in the country Koreans see as the original home of shamanism, one of the most surprising expressions of this cultural phenomenon will be the small-ads offering shamanic services.  These are common and particularly in evidence in magazines targeting women of middle age. The message in one of these advertisements below reads “The shaman and exorcism are like diagnosis or surgery for your spirit. If you find a good doctor you can get good treatment. So it’s really important to find a good shaman”. 

Small ads list telephone numbers, shrine locations, and give potted histories explaining how and why this particular individual became a shaman. The personal story also supports the track record of big successes – predicting Michael Jackson's death, correctly calling the Korean presidential election, predicting the tsunami etc.  And some ads list the shaman's TV appearances in her/his professional capacity. The small-ad also tend to detail the shaman.s specialism: e.g. solving job difficulties, predicting relationships and resolving relationship problems, business predictions, working on marital compatibility or concubine problems, entrance examination predictions, property investment predictions…

In the hierarchy of specialisms, one of the things people clearly want to solve most through a shaman is the secret of material and wordly success. The shaman is the mediator or agent to satisfy such desires.   The list of problems people want to solve through a shaman leans significantly in this direction. The shaman is a mediator (or an agent) to satisfy these very practical ambitions. Here certain questions and uncertainties arise. It is in a way covetous to go to shaman since, as Koreans tend to believe, the shaman can see the future and so perhaps change it to be as a client wants it to be. There is something perceptually unrighteous and shady about this because people also understand that their future is their responsibility, something that's being made by themselves.

This ambivalence means that the shamans’ advertisements are normally located in places like the last few pages of magazines or the back of the seat on night buses – like these advertisements in the illustration above. This is also a highly commercialised activity, however much its origins are oriented towards the spiritual. There are no free shamanic services. This is a job, a drive to sustain business for the shaman and his/her divine backing. In the pictures in the Korean advertisements, the shamans wear elaborate make up and vivid colour costumes to attract attention – this is a kind of mainstream marketing. 

Koreans tend to go to a shaman when they have a problem they’re not able to deal with for some reason and need to try to find an alternative possibility for now. Although shamanism is deeply rooted in traditional culture and still very much alive today, most Koreans don’t completely trust the shaman’s ability. However we strongly believe that through the mediation of shamanism it is possible to get, at least, solace of soul and some alleviation of desire.  

© Hyaesook Yang 2011

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Value Positioning

Friday, April 1st, 2011

 

While North Africa was erupting, Germans were more preoccupied with the premature end to the career of he country’s most popular politician. He stepped down at the beginning of March after two weeks of a bitter media battle. Subsequently his supporters took to the streets to get him reinstated. An unprecedented affair here in Germany.

What happened?

The German Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had been Germany’s shining star of politics for the previous two years. He was hailed by many as Germany’s only minister whose hionesty and integrity were unquestionable.

Independent, young, good looking, politically very talented. he lives in a castle with his beautiful blond wife, both independently wealthy. A unique positioning in German politics. The question was not if he became Prime Minister, the question was when.

Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had developed a personal brand with a unique and sustainable positioning in territory uncharted for politicians for decades. Fair, open, amiable and aspirational.

Even a string of very awkward looking political moves including 180 degree turnaraounds, firing of high ranking personnel in the presence of the press and lacking the usual inquiries, could not tarnish his reputation. When Karl Theodor made mistakes the electorate was kind. Better any day than the right decision by a standard boring and mistrusted politician.

Then he got caught – big time.

A large proportion of his doctoral thesis turned out to be plagiarised. Whole sections copied almost word for word with no attribution in footnotes. A Summa Cum Laude thesis awarded by one of Germany’s best universities.

The minister denied wrongdoing. With self-assurance and just a hint of arrogance. Unfortunately, however, the evidence piled up against him and many Germans were aghast at the extent of the plagiarism. This time he was dropped. Not by his most ardent fans, not by the Chancellor – but by some of his colleagues, a large part of society and by a very vocal academic community.

Finally, he tried to reposition himself.   From unique super-minister to ‚your average, power-clinging, truth-bending politician. Just like the others.  But others often got away with it in the past. Not Karl Theodor. Despite all his efforts to downplay misconduct, despite all efforts by the press and the German Cabinet to support him, he had to go. His self-established core brand values were too strong to allow for this repositioning.

© Oliver Litten 2011

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Network: Paul

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?  

I’m at London Metropolitan University, the university with the highest number of working-class students in the UK. I teach Communications and Media.

What makes your students want to study semiotics and what do they go on to do with what they learn?  Are there any patterns you see recurring in that respect?

Very few want to study semiotics, but very many want to study ‘meaning’, culture and techniques of human communication. Students go on to jobs in the media conceived in the broadest sense: production, sales, marketing, market research and related jobs, as well as more general work for charities and in the public sector. I think that most of them grasp the idea that there is very little chance in the world of occupations that anyone can avoid the imperative to read and analyse media products of one sort or another rather than just consuming them.

Are there any short courses for people who have encountered semiotics in the marketing or media world and want to learn more about theory and application?

No, there aren’t, really. I’m in the very early stages of thinking up some initiatives in that area because I think the changes that have taken place in semiotics in the last 20 years have not really spread as I might have liked in academia, let alone in the world of commerce and industry.

Some of our readers will have first encountered you through your 'graphic novel' style introduction to semiotics with Litza Jansz.  How did that come about, what's its history since publication, and how do you feel about it now?

Ha. That’s a good question to get me to open up about this field because, rather than being commissioned to do the book I had to (typically) approach the publishers to consider a book on semiotics for their series. Luckily, my approach was welcomed by Richard Appignanesi who originated the ‘comic book encyclopedia’ concept some decades earlier. Richard’s a visionary and as well as dreaming up the idea he edited the books and managed the series so that I was teamed with a great illustrator.

I’m happy with the book in that it nods at the whole of semiotics. At the time that I published it, I think a lot of people in Britain thought that semiotics was somehow synonymous with ‘structuralism’ and that meant mugging up on what Roland Barthes thought about Saussure, getting a grip on Lacan, going on to Derrida and then being able to write off semiotics by talking about poststructuralism and postmodernism (both of which latter were themselves pretty much written off by the time I was writing the book). That stuff is in the book and there was still a market for it; but I’m most pleased that there’s stuff about Peirce, Sebeok, Uexküll and Morris who were quite far from structuralism and Lotman (who was a bit closer). I’m unhappy with small parts of the book because I’ve made a couple of mistakes of detail; it’s not the mistakes per se, it’s the fact that they they simply perpetuate a view of how semiology was generally understood.

One sad fact about the history of that publication is that the whole comic book Beginners/Introducing series was launched by Richard with Writers and Readers publishing in a scenario which, I understand, went sour. Richard rescued the concept for re-launch with Icon in the early 1990s. However, he no longer works with what now exists of Icon and I have not seen any royalties on the book for many years.

You have described some applied commercial semioticians as people who actually do semiology not semiotics.  What do you mean by this distinction and why is it important?

A great deal of applied commercial semiotics is really sophisticated analysis of language and anthropological reading of contemporary society. My feeling is, though, that we could go further. More focus on issues to do with nonverbality, emotion and cognition could yield amazing results. International academic semiotics nowadays is, in the main, orientated towards a vision of semiosis embedded within its evolutionary heritage – that’s the wider picture. But within that picture is facilitated an approach to human communication which is not just fixated on what can and cannot be communicated in linguistic terms – recurring tropes, figures of speech, ideological representations and the like – but also what is beyond speech: emotional dispositions, feelings, responses to qualities, nonverbal interaction with other humans, the environment and other species, by way of body distance/proximity, gestures, movement and vocal nonverbal communication.

How do you think semiotics can help us address the big socioeconomic and political challenges that are emerging?  

Some people think semiotics can’t do that, but I think such a view is short-sighted. Semiotics is very political. In short, it always has the potential of a great bullshit detector – if you can see how a message has been constructed, then you have some grip on power. This is the kind of thing that Barthes and Eco and their generation recognized and it’s still largely true. But there are other points in semiotics’ relation to politics. It studies all signification, so nothing that signifies escapes politicization. Also, in its acute scepticism it exposes how some semiosis is repressed because of either certain interests or certain biological or social developments. Possibly most important is that contemporary semiotics is concerned with the continuity between humans and other species, drawing out differences and similarities, particularly with respect to agency, and sometimes implying the responsibility humans have as constituents of a variegated environment.

Tell us about the image you selected to accompany this interview.

It’s a picture of Clever Hans, the ‘intelligent’ horse whose arithmetic feats amazed the public in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. In fact, the horse was revealed not to be calculating or operating in language but, instead, responding to a number of nonverbal cues emitted by his ‘interlocutor’. These were perceived by the horse but unseen by spectators who were taken in by his performances.

Is there a soundbite you can invent (or plagiarise) from Confucius or anywhere else that sums up semiotics (or the importance of semiotics) today?

No, there isn’t. I’m an academic, so I can’t do soundbites very well. I could probably do something verbose and alienating if you fancied it.

Posted in Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

All that glitters

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Unlike BBC and CNN, who that take pride in having an eclectic global audience, NDTV aims to make its impression on the Indian citizen (and, at most, the nostalgic expat). It is keen to be numero uno only among the current glut of Indian news channels.  

NDTV came into being in 1990 just ahead of India's  economic liberalization in 1991.  The aspiration was to be the generic challenger to state-owned Door Darshan  (DD) TV.  The old NDTV logo was far simpler than the gilt edged shine of the current offering which caters to an elite English-speaking fraction of the nation, numbering a few  privileged millions in a population that crossed a billion a decade ago.

The main headlines are on horizontal bars of gold, with light quietly flashing  off the metal. Changing  graphics are stacked gold coins. There is, after all, more gold in the bank vaults of Indians than in the rest of the world put together. Gold prices have made a permanent abode in the stratosphere, pushed upwards by a set of people for whom gold will never go out of fashion.  

And while the rest of the world and Steve Jobs may have been waxing eloquent on the beauty and elegance of a profusion of fonts available in a new tech-enabled world, NDTV continues to use squat capital letters long out of date.  Leaving no space for any other word, these letters completely envelop the space available in the logo’s permanent corner.

The bindi is present here as a marker of the nation’s identity squashed between N and D,  and so is the sound of the tabla in the audio ident.  Historically, this rhythmic Indian instrument  is considered a relatively modern marker (here for  the past few hundred years since the Mughals)  as opposed to the old fashioned Indian drum, the dhol (which has millennia behind it).

Is the channel really only catering to the local citizen?  No international news channel can do that, can it?  I see its global pretensions in the choice of the geographical maps used as illustration for every single news item.  What the channel does is throw overboard the idea of political maps. Instead – physical maps are considered appropriate.

Politically speaking, India  either includes an 'undivided' Kashmir crowning the country (as all Indians are taught in school) or  has part of Kashmir tossed over the territory into Pakistan (as most maps in the rest of the world represent it).  Physical maps create no such controversy. The show the way  the world has been, long before humans settled into a life of geopolitical complexity. In fact the graphics don’t just stop at this – as background NDTV uses a galaxy.  This suggests a time frame appropriate to the 24/7 channel's 'breaking news' moment to moment raison d’etre.

And if you take a look at NDTV's Hindi news channel, that’s pretty revealing in itself. Around 200 million consider the language to be their mother tongue, and another 400 million use it to converse with each other. The idea is to communicate a happening new nation and what better way to do it than to call the brand  ‘NDTV India' , with India written in the Hindi script.  

What’s the surprise there, you ask?

But we all call India Bharat in Hindi. Like the Germans calling their land Deutschland  and Japan being Nippon at home. In all of our zillion local languages Bharat is our name.  Can we imagine Germans having a home-based channel where the language is Deutsch all the way, but the channel itself is called 'something Germany'?

NDTV would like its viewers to draw authority and pride from the name the rest of the world uses to address the nation, India.  From the outside looking in. It is this gaze that weaves the nation together today.  At least in ‘news-speak’. 

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

Posted in Asia, Culture, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Tying the ribbons tight

Monday, February 28th, 2011

 

For brands which champion female authenticity and naturalness, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film Black Swan would be the stuff of nightmares.

The film follows popular ballet mythology in showing the fetishistic self-mutilation that lies behind the perfection of classical dance. Dancers force their feet into their shoes, criss-crossing the ribbons and tying the knot tight. They continuously stitch and re-stitch their costumes. And they starve and scar themselves in mysterious and barely conscious rituals of self-harm.

All these processes – suturing, binding, scarring – apply beyond ballet to symbolise the wider ways people cut themselves to fit the pattern of their social and economic ‘roles’. Despite the recent vogue for celebrating whole and authentic expression, Black Swan shows that the very possibility of social identity is founded upon painful artifice and elaborate construction.

The film also turns on the radical split that characterises classical ballet in popular mythology. On stage, all is perfect – ‘so pretty, so pink’ to quote a line from the script. But behind the scenes all is carnage: poisonous rivalries, vomiting in the toilet, drugs, sexual abuse, and bleeding feet.

It’s this very narcissistic divide between light and dark, ‘white swan’ and ‘black swan’, that authenticity-focused brands like Dove try to heal. By challenging the desired on-stage perfection of feminine identity, they seek to tidy up the back-stage mess too.

But the film attacks this split in a completely different way. It collapses the whole distinction between ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, fiction and reality, into a generalised hallucination – the darkness of the ‘black swan’ breaking out of the dressing room and taking over the entirety of the film’s theatrical and psychic architecture.

So, in the end, all that binding and sewing, cutting and starving, comes to nothing. In fact, it achieves the opposite effect, triggering the complete breakdown of the stage set of subjectivity, and destroying the boundaries that separate illusion from reality.

In a way, it’s another take on the familiar idea of the ‘return of the repressed’. When the bondage of culture reaches an intolerable extremity, all hell breaks loose. But the film also plays with the boundaries between nature and culture in a more unusual way – staging a deliberate and conscious exacerbation of cultural artifice in order to unleash an explosion of natural energy.

Mainstream Western philosophy has usually claimed that nature lies somewhere outside culture – often before, as its pre-existing foundation. But Black Swan suggests that maybe nature lies at culture’s outer limit – and that we have to go to an extreme point of artifice, ritual and restraint in order to find it. So, in the film, the dancer turns classical mimesis into shamanic metamorphosis, using extreme classical perfection to invoke nature – and to call in the black swan in its physical reality.

With this idea, the film joins more marginal philosophical traditions spanning East and West, Indian tantric practice and European sado-masochism offering two key examples.

A ballet film, the tantric tradition and de Sade may sound like an unlikely nexus. But all involve using elaborate ritual and artifice – culture at its most extreme – to break through to the other side.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Tim

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?

At my command console; the Panopticon, remotely directing global operations. I transmit codes via satellite network, which get picked up by semiotic agents. Really though, I'm tidying my desk. Its covered in everyone else's rubbish, as usual.

How did you first become interested in semiotics?

Every design course comes with a semiotics primer. Then I worked for Paul Smith as a designer after college. I was at the bottom of a chain of command, so I began exploring the landscape to see where the constant need for creative production stemmed from. I worked in brand consultancies and advertising agencies and travelled up the ladder of job titles to creative director, before jumping off. 

I was always a combination of creative, strategic and theory. My best work could never be printed in a portfolio. My best work is presented verbally. Visual things date quickly, relevance and potency get bleached. I was always looking for ways to work with ideas instead of shapes. Just recently I found my way into a semiotics lead environment.

Describe a working day as a visual culture analyst in commercial semiotics

My favourite day is when project teams work verbally on the raw ingredients of a project, moulding thoughts and insights into meaningful, well-rooted opportunities.

Has semiotics triggered any changes in how you as a practitioner think about or implement design?

No, but it galvanised my theory that design delivers a rigid solution down a pipeline. It locks down more than it opens up.

Semiotics offers multiple lines of enquiry. It reveals how different strings of cultural significance influence everything. Things are constantly shifting when you look at those influences at work.

The creative imperative I set out to find springs from this unstable cultural landscape. Change needs to be observed, understood, and put to work. Semiotics is the way in which we harness the evolving landscape.

Tell us about the image you've chosen…

Franklin Chang-Diaz. Franklin: a mix of feudal middle-English, Anglo-Norman and French-Germanic root syllables. Chang: Chinese, one of the most ancient hereditary surnames in the world. Diaz: Hebraic origins, thoroughly Hispanic.  

He’s a Costa Rican-American physicist, the first Hispanic NASA astronaut, and record holder for the most spaceflights.

Diverse ancestral threads, intertwined to create a unique man. Some might argue his ancestry has nothing to do with his achievements. Others might suggest he represents the perfect cocktail of cultural imperatives that enable a person to become the most frequently travelled astronaut in history.

Where can you see applied semiotics evolving in future?

We are already seeing semiotic thinking influencing social and political situations. I think there are pressing global concerns that require a radical new angle of approach. Semiotics could have some answers. We’ll need a semiotics superhero. Lets not forget Superman ‘wikileaked’ the KKK in the 1940's via a weekly radio show.

http://www.worldhistoryblog.com/2005/12/stetson-kennedy-and-superman-beat-kkk.html

Is it true you used to be the drummer for Black Sabbath?

No, but I once played electro-sax on a T'Pau single.

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Human or Humanoid?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Technology as we know it is, and will always be, lifeless. Whether it’s a household appliance or a particle accelerator there is no soul, no beating heart. It’s unlikely that technology will act as if it had a mind of its own, expanding and contracting like dendrites in the brain. Our bodies are truly remarkable. Our skin has the elasticity and resilience to conform to our changing bodies. It can heal itself when its get injured. It can acclimate to changing external temperatures by activating sweat glands or increasing heart rate.

The idea behind the Vibram Five Fingers shoe is that it enables the foot to perform better than any shoe that came before it, no matter what gel or air cushion technology any previous shoe delivered. The five toe shoe does so simply as a second skin molding to the feet and enabling the foot to flex and respond with sensory and kinesthetic awareness.  It does what shoes where originally intended to do – protect. But in this case to protect without inhibiting or undermining the action of the human feet. We place our feet down on the ground differently when we go barefoot versus when we stride in shoes – because, when we wear shoes, our foot is adjusting to the shoe, not to the ground. In a way, we truly are the technology.

On the other hand, maybe we’re not the technology.

The challenge with the Vibram Five Fingers ads and the website is that the human characters appear to be inhuman. The impression is contrary to the overture of the campaign. You’d expect that standing naked, bodies scarred for the world to ogle, would leave one feeling humiliated for life. Yet their expression and gesture indicates that they have no shame. Embarrassed humans immediately respond with downcast head and eyes. In a prolonged state of shame and embarrassment, a blank stare would result–a neurotic attempt to emotionally escape.

The decision to purchase any shoe is motivated by shame. This negative emotion is the primary motivation for willing our bodies forward and taking care. Shame allows us to evaluate our mortality and ourselves. It’s the emotion responsible for compelling us to look in the mirror and decide what steps have to be taken next. Shame is the emotion of self-improvement and dignity. It’s the emotion that tells us we need better shoes.

What separates the humanoid from the human is a light that shines brightly behind the eyes. In these characters there is no such indicator.  As the ad suggests, ‘we are the technology’ – a lifeless, shameless instrument for advertising and web interactivity.

© Michael Colton 2011

Make sure to checkout the website!  youarethetechnology.com

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Making Sense, Technology | 2 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: China

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

 

Brazilianness associated with shaking cultural norms – happy spontaneity as an alternative to all-pervasive balance and self-control?

Chinese popular culture connected with Brazil in recent years through football and food. Via the soccer star of mythic standing,Pele. And the speciality Brazil Roast Meat restaurant chain which popped up in the main Chinese cities. This once exotic food experience is now falling out of fashion – with new Brazilian codes in China sharing unstructured, lively and experimental associations. Overall Brazil is now being represented as a place where norms are shaken.

RESIDUAL CODES & SIGNIFIERS

Pele

Brazilian Roast Meat restaurant

DOMINANT CODES

Brazilian Soccer

Samba and dance – informal and relatively unstructured but happy and full of life, with everyone able to join in.

It echoes in the public mind with the tai chi practiced daily by older people in China – which is also happy and open to everyone but, as both are executed in China, feels highly codified and structured compared with samba.

Samba also connects with the idea of Brazilian partying, music, street festivals – echoing with analogous Chinese celebrations (e.g. New Year, with fireworks etc. echoed in Brazilian carnival).

Brazil is also coming to be associated with nature. As code that has not been extensively elaborated as yet but is clearly established. Green nature at the moment – potential to be linked with the drier, essential nature of traditional Chinese medicine (note coverage in other countries of Amazon’s rich diversity as a source of potentially powerful new ingredients/cures.

EMERGENT CODES

Evolving traditional Chinese medicine through connection with other cultures & geographies? Would obviously be a major contender.

Otherwise no clearly established emergent codes of Brazilianness in China – just occasional new examples of Brazil’s challenge to received wisdom and convention (e.g. publicity around transsexual Brazilian Givenchy model; new female President, Dilma Rousseff. 

REFLECTION – TRAJECTORIES OF CHANGE 

A place full of life, spontaneity, diversity: 

– Chinese ‘balance’ (Taichi, Qigong ) can become a little too self-directed and dry in the long term to offer a solution to growing frustrations in Chinese society
– Brazil as a new iconic place for exploration, emergence of new social norms 
– we could imagine Brazil successfully for aspirational Chinese people as a place to rediscover the spontaneous self and a refreshing change from excessive self-control.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2011

Posted in Asia, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

Network: Ajitesh

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?
 
I am currently working in London, for Harris Interactive as a Research Analyst in the Advanced Analytics division. I deal with statistical/econometric analyses as well as research methodology in general. It really is not as dull as it sounds! My job is exciting because of the sheer variety of things I'm involved in, which, on any given day can span from conducting pricing analyses to questionnaire design. A large part of my work focuses on understanding the drivers of brand choice as well as contributing to innovation in behavioural economics. I have also delivered training in semiotics and more generally promoted a semiotic perspective on consumer behaviour.           
 
How did you first become interested in semiotics?
 
I have always had a keen interest in human behaviour. Why do people do the things they do? Early in my studies of psychology, I became increasingly interested in the field of social cognition – the study of social information processing, in particular the study of imitation. Whilst researching this field, I came across an article titled “The Dynamics of Interaction and Consciousness”, written by Svend Østergaard in the academic journal Cognitive Semiotics. This article introduced me to the concept of schematic representations – a type of abstract mental structure, which sparked my interest in Cognitive Semiotics – the study of how meaning is encoded and decoded in communication.    
 
You work with a market research organisation and an academic semiotics institute. Tell us about that double life?
 
Yes, even though I work as a Research Analyst full-time, I try to stay up-to-date with developments at the Center for Semiotics at AU by attending lectures and following research activities. I find that having this dual perspective is extremely rewarding. My academic expertise can be readily utilised for commercial purposes, although within the constraints of actionable commercial solutions, which is a tough challenge! I also find myself in the privileged position of critically appraising semiotic theories in light of observing “semiotics in action” in a variety of commercial research projects.  
 
 
From your experience of academic semiotics how would you like to see semiotics develop commercially?
 
I would like to see more recent developments from academic semioticians being adopted by commercial semioticians. Some of the most cutting-edge academic achievements include the study of signs and sign systems using neuroscience, artificial intelligence technology and predictive analytics. A general principle that unites these techniques is the potential for gaining data-driven insight into meaning and the study of signs and sign systems. Ideally, I would like to see some form of evidence-based semiotics being applied by commercial semiotic analysts, as this may not only increase the quality of semiotic analyses being provided to clients but also ensure a greater return on investment for these clients, helping to retain existing clients and attracting new ones with a disposition for systematic and scalable techniques.  
 
Tell us about the image you've selected
 
The image I selected shows the continuity between non-human primates and human primates. In my view, this is essential to cognitive semiotics. In order to genuinely understand the general properties and functions of signs and sign systems, one has to take into account primate behaviour and human evolution that led to symbolic information processing.
 
© Ajitesh Ghose 2011
 
Image Source:
http://www.sociosemiotics.net/events/2008/3rd-late-spring-school-semiotics

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Colombia

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

 

Although, perceptions of a place change with the speed of news, events and economy, there are some elements of Brazilian culture that remain embedded in the Colombian social imaginaries of Brazil.

Colombia and Brazil are very close, very similar and very different. Colombians have a great affinity with the positive aspects of Brazilian-ness – freedom, enjoyment, desire, gambling and, of course, football.

Residual codes

Hyper-hyper tropical, hyper urban and hyper green. Brazil as a synonym of excess – excess of freedom, happiness, sex, forests, and cities.

Screen fantasies, stories and dreams that connected to the Colombian reality.  Brazilian soap operas (Telenovelas) are still embedded in the minds of older Colombians.

Brazil seen as a geography of desire, where sexual licentiousness and the erotic have been consciously embraced. An extreme cult to the body.

Modernism connected to urban development – Neimeyer & Brasilia, Capanema & modernist curves, extremes of wealth and poverty.

Brazil perceived as feminine. Warm, desirable and beautiful women.

Dominant codes

The land of green indexes, vast green forests, pure green colours, and oxygen (green).  All this contrasted with media about deforestation, and questionable commitment where green issues are concerned.

Brazil is moving away from the female stereotypes. Masculine expressions are becoming popular in the collective Colombian imaginaries. Cult and deep connection to the body through exercise – especially capoeira. Brazil is more masculine, younger, and more connected to future generations.

City of God” brought a perception of Brazil as a geography of violence and fear. Favelas and mafias as icons for internal violence, extreme social deprivation, exclusion, and violent death.  Very different to Colombian violence.

Land of paradoxes, high industrial and technological development contrasted with poverty and social inequality.

Big contrast between local /global, urban /rural. A cosmopolitan country full of festive cities, big metropolises with an outstanding human quality. Modernity in relation to migration from Europe and Japan.  Urban settings, graffiti culture, hip-hop, and fusion to the extreme.

Localness in relation to the native and aboriginal – connected to indigenous communities in the Amazon, mulattos and Afro descendent populations.

Colombians tend to relate to the animosity, freedom and enjoyment of Brazilian football, although not so much to technical aspects of it.

Land of sound and carnival culture.  Samba, brega, forró, axe and paoge, garotos & garotas, batucadas – all pursuing happiness.

Saudade and its intrinsic connections with sound and relationships. The voices of Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Rita Ribeiro are still played in Colombian “Brazilian” bars.

A culture of enjoyment, good people and uncomplicated manners. Pleasure also connotes beach, caipirinhas and sugar cane.

A religious geography, ranging across Santeria, priests and Corcovado.

Culture and education as part of government agendas, Gilberto Gil, the bossa-nova precursor, was during Lula’s government Minister of Culture, supporting workshops for children and teenagers, creating a new space for social & cultural involvement and economic development. (Similar discourse was used during last Colombian elections).  It seems that in Brazil politics and culture work in synergy. Brazil is seen as a paradise in which to cultivate political and cultural dreams.

Brazil seen as the South American paradise for production and consumption of fakes. It is sometimes called the South American “China” butbetter quality.

Research and Innovation niche. Major government commitment to education. Colombians’ main source of scholarships and economic support, especially in the technical field. Florianopolis as a land of innovation and education.

Aesthetic freedom related to arts, carnival, music, and folklore. Cannibalising western cultures helped Brazil to produce more and more in music, cinema, and arts.

Emergent codes

Brazil image will evolve to an urban+ concept. Urban+ as it will retain the richness of its locality. Emergence of local/urban typographies used in global contexts.

Recent political and economic changes helped Brazilian creative Industries to be recognised, especially in the areas of film and design.  Big influence in other South American countries.

Artistic fusion – Portuguese, Spanish & English. Collaboration among local & foreign artists and musicians.

Spiritual connection to the land, the Amazon, and earthy Brazilian elements. Development of new products (non-esoteric).

A haven for higher education, for both native and foreign populations.

Rapid progress of technological advance, especially in the areas of bioengineering and thermoplastic production.

Colombians seem to regard Brazil as the main player in the region. A big player in democracy, economic and social change in the world.

2014 World Cup – connecting Brazil and South America with the rest of the world.

Some key points in conclusion:

Brazil was and still is regarded as the land of big contrasts.

Brazil is moving away from the female stereotypes and bringing elements that are more masculine and younger.  Design and street art will play a bigger role in culture and will influence other South American countries. 

Brazil is the mirror in which all Latin America’s desires are projected with maximum intensity and to their limit. 

© Lucia Neva  2011

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Culture, Global/Local, Making Sense, Socioeconomics, Technology | No Comments »

Chinese Car Names

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

 

“How can I best imprint my brand image into the consumer’s mind?” This is currently the simplest, and yet the hardest one to answer in the auto industry in China. The competing brands are relentlessly seeking ways to create better, more appealing images than competitors in this lucrative market: going green, new value propositions such as cost-efficiency, lower-energy consumption, safety, cutting-edge design etc.
 
One of the most recent industry trends is the emergence of a new breed of bands created by Western-Chinese joint ventures that are not limited anymore in manufacturing and distributing the original western models. Many of the big JV auto companies in China have announced the creation of such brands. Our naming analysis looks prospectively into what the names chosen say about their intended positioning and the reflect of future industry trends.
 
 
宝骏 The literal meaning of this name (model to the right in picture) is fine/excellent horse, implying achievement, success in life, emphasizing the high quality of the auto and the status of the driver. Being auspicious, this name is a good fit for a car maker. Yet, it is quite similar to 宝马BMW, and lacks originality. Because of its strong resemblance to BMW’s Chinese name and its focus on status and prestige, we can expect the brand might be challenged by BMW in the near future.
 
启辰 The Chinese name chosen for this new model (left in the picture) literally means “the first light beam of a new day”, implying the new direction of the future, and also an auspicious name. Much work has been done to design this name which is a variation of the term 启明星, and it evocates the meanings such as grandeur, wisdom and in-depth reflection. This is truly a groundbreaking name.
 
理念 This Chinese name (centre model in picture) literally means “principle”, focusing on philosophy, reflection and life attitude. This name links to lifestyle aspirations and insights shared both by the customers and the auto makers. However it is not consistent with the English name and might just be a temporary project name.
 
 
From this analysis, we conclude that only Venucia (left) is showing innovation in its Chinese naming strategy. Baojun (right) is stuck in mainstream practice and Everus (centre) looks like it has yet to choose a final name. 

Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Brazil Mash-Up: India

Friday, February 4th, 2011

 

 

Brazil – Not yet ‘happening’ in India!

In a country where precious time is spent outside the American, British, Canadian and Australian embassies, and migration is the ultimate climax, the average Indian is always nose-diving into the Lonely Planet for those ‘ten day trips’. So Turkey, Istanbul, Egypt, Switzerland, Venice, Rome, Berlin and now even Cuba have become signifiers of ‘awesome’ summers and the new Singapores and Dubais. Talk of inflation and rising airfares anyone? Tourist operators are raking in the moolah like never before and package tours that literally ‘pack’ civilizations and cultures in ten days are mushrooming in every corner of Indian cities. Indians want to be in the ‘happening’ corners of the world.

Happening is part of the Indian ‘oral tradition’. It works like the old English rhyme where everyone goes in a ‘pack’. One set of Gujarati’s tells another, and another tells a set of Punjabi’s, and these then tell another set of Bengali’s and so travels the lore. Happening is a place that does not oppose one’s essential indianness, where you can stand in the street in attires that match your own, and say cheese with a pride in having been there. Happening is a place from where you can ‘report’ about history, civilizations, new worlds, new fashions, and a sense of future, again, that ‘I’ve been there’ assertion. Man, Switzerland is ‘happening’!

So, going to ibiza? Despite my own personal angst about not getting to Brazil, I think it is not yet on the ‘twin radar’ of the migratory pattern of the Indians, or on the touristic map. Neither is it remote. Most Indians dance to Vengaboys and the famous ‘Braziiiiiiil’ or ‘ibiza’ at every party, and every football crazy Indian knows the numbers on Kaka, Pele and Ronaldinho’s shirts or the latter’s new hairstyle (see the picture above of Brazil fans in Kerala, South India, during last summer's football World Cup). But Brazil, is just not ‘historical enough’, nor is it the ‘new world’ like Dubai, nor is it ‘chic’ enough for the average Indian to aspire to be seen there.  So it is not ‘happening enough’. The image that is conjured about Brazil is ‘that place with those lovely beaches, and er..those well endowed men and women’.’ Goa comes closest to the idea of a seaside culture for Indians.  India is capable even of being ironic bout it's own lack of true connection with an authentic Brazilianness.  The picture below is from an iDiva website feature where singer Manasi Scott is shown trying to bring the Rio Carnival to Lakme Fashion Week only to evoke he response that "she looks more like a drag queen".

Brazil is an image of freedom without those monumental structures that an average Indian can hide behind and watch. Unlike an Egypt or a Rome, or Venice, where you can feel the romance, but you can still put up that staid, cheesy smile with a monument in the backdrop, in Brazil you just have to stand in front of the beaches or the rainforests and of course, the chances of the mermaids and those semi-clad Tarzans appearing from nowhere is very high!

Finally, the last semiotic import – when you say I went to ‘Venice’, ‘Rome’, Paris’ it is distinctly different from, ‘I went to Brazil’. From the ooooh’s and aaaaah’s, the graph dips to ‘oh’. And then a naughty grin, that says, ‘why’? Why would anyone want to brave the leeches and the thick dense rainforests or the blazing sun of the Brazilian beaches? Now, don’t look away, Brazil offers great economic opportunities, investment futures, blah blah blah………anyone listening?

© Seema Khanwalkar  2011

For some more examples of emerging Indian football fandom see http://wn.com/Brazil_and_Argentina_football_fans_in_Kerala,_India.

Posted in Americas, Asia, Culture, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: France

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

It’s for sure that Brazil is gaining importance in the French imaginary too.

In principle when you’ve been living in the charming but grey Paris, any warm and sunny place can seem a phantasmal Eldorado.

But this is not what is happening. Something is changing in the perception of Brazil and shifting from a residual and bluntly paradisiacal image, through a dominant appealing and exciting “culture”, up to an emergent aspirational “country”.

Brazil has always been a destination for the French. For holidays, of course. Its beaches and romantic exotic cities, as well as the natural and historical treasures attract both popular self-indulgent tourists and cultivated vistors from France who expect more. On top of this, local folklore, food, drinks and music, amazingly well marketed in France, are as much of an attraction as the geographical targets already mentioned.

Not surprise, actually, that this dimension of Brazilian appeal seen from France is basically grounded on a cultural distance which defines “exoticism”. Beautiful places, good food or music considered exciting because “different”. 

From this first point of view, it’s curious to notice how a more contemporary approach to Brazilian culture emerged based on the immediately sharable elements of the Brazilian universe. In this perspective Brazil is easily connected with football, architecture, contemporary dance and art… languages or activities which don’t demand a distant approach but which can be fully appreciated and practiced through empathy. A more picky audience, the one more sensitive to media exposure, sees now Brazil as an articulated culture, not “different” but “alternative” to the French one. This public discovers, for example, that Brazilian fashion exists – everybody can imagine how jealous of “fashionness” the French can be – and that it not only speaks through the spectacular over-colourful codes of what may be considered local or typical. The world of Andrea Marques (http://www.andreamarques.com.br/) and even more the one of British Colony (http://www.britishcolony.com.br/verao2011/) may be fully enjoyed and appreciated through the interpretative codes used to evaluate French fashion.

From a dominant and someway-cynical perspective, this turns Brazil into an articulated culture which is ready-to-consume, a sort of extension of an ever-growing globalized offer largely extending itself beyond the French boundaries. Products from Brazil are not first and foremost Brazilian any more – but “good”, “affordable” and then eventually Brazilian…

Consumption has undeniable negative aspects but it also brings a form of knowledge. And knowledge in its turn stimulates imagination. That is maybe how Brazil is turning out to be a interesting playground for the development of projects or even lives for people who now see it no longer as an “other”, or even as a “culture” but as a system where things can be done or grown. Emergent Brazil is a country where life, work, business… all these are also imaginable. It has become a place to be for French intellectuals and artists now directing cultural festivals in Recife or Fortaleza, students applying for to transoceanic MBAs, businessmen trying there what’s not possible here – and also for ordinary people.

This vision is nurtured by a projective and imaginative look. Surely another form of distance, but far from the one underlying exoticism and beyond the consumerist excitement, towards the fertile idea of “possibility”.

© Luca Marchetti 2011

Posted in Americas, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Germany

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

 

Brazil is indeed in a state of flux regarding its positioning in the German foreign culture map. At a time where the white spaces on the world map are beginning to disappear all together Brazil is one of the few ’uncharted areas’ with positively connoted expectations. Unlike Dubai or the emerging eastern European markets Brazil stands increasingly, from a German perspective, for a politically sound society with strong cultural roots – a positive example for democratic emerging markets.

In terms of Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes the main phases of Residual and Dominant are post-World War 2 to the early 80s and 80s to today, respectively.

RESIDUAL

A typical 2nd World country where modernisation is hampered by corruption and lack of democratic spirit/social equality.

Left and right wing governing attempts culminating in military rule.

All highly repressive, against not for the people.

Inhumane poverty on a grand scale and immense crime. 

In short: the worst of both the capitalist and socialist systems.

The cultural counterpart reflected in German popular imagery ist he local Brazilian lifestyle (sun, beach, bodies) and the best football team in the world which draws its abilities from the most impoverished part of the population.

The Ipanema view of Brazil seems almost unreal, a projection, possibly a remnant of a further past given the socio-political realities. It is much like Havana in the 50s & early 60s – a glamorous image that skews the social reality.

Compounded by Brazil’s geography from a German perspective: South America – the home of many Nazis (in particular Chile). The preponderance of German names in the region has an odd resonance in Germany. 

Many DDR politicians reported to have taken the same route after 1989 and the still unclaimed money of the former SED party is rumoured to be in South American banks. 

DOMINANT (codes consolidating since 1980s)

 In the late 70s Brazil became a major business partner to German industry and with the change of government in 1985 Brazil took a decisive step towards improvement: the hope inherent in any new democracy.

But still a democracy tainted by corruption and imagery suggesting poverty reminiscent of the middle ages: the favelas.

Brazil in the 80s and 90s echoed Spain in German media respresentations and popular consciousness. A poor country perfect to visit for summer vacation with its cultural icon Ipanema (Spain: Costa del Sol) but regarded as backward, corrupt and dangerous. Certainly not a place to settle or from which to expect modern developments.

Association: Brazil either wins the world Cup decisively or gets eliminated early – something unpredictable & unstable in this country (antithesis of the German self-image as thorough, reliable and possibly a little boring).

No significant presence of Brazilians or Brazilian culture in Germany. Therefore no way for Germans to form a picture seperate from books, media, set themes and conventions of Brazilianness in German received wisdom and popular culture.

So Brazilian culture is far removed from German mindset & self-image – singing & dancing prominently associated ith Brazil connotes holiday, the exotic, something remote from the everyday (Brazil as culturally ’other’ for Germans as Africa or Hawaii.

Paolo Coehlo opening a window on a different aspect of Brazilian culture – from 1990s opening people’s eyes to deeper intellectual and emotional potential in Brazil.

Another more recent development in the Dominant codes is awareness of beauty industry & importance of cosmetic surgery. Sao Paolo as a magnet for would-be models – with Brazilian surgeons reportedly practicing with girls from the favelas turning them into beauty queens. Brazilian surgeons ’enhancing nature’ versus perception of US cosmetic surgery as imperfectly concealing ist artifice (or not at all).

EMERGENT

Emergent Brazilianness in Germany is as yet unrealised. This is potentially rich terrain to receive new positive imagery associated with Brazil. But what’s in place, as yet, is mainly the potential rather than any detailed implementation.

Potential based on Brazil as the most dynamic of the BRIC economies. Further powered by the massive projected oil reserves on Brazil’s coasts (exceeded only by those of Venezuela). The prospect of massive injections of income, e.g. to fund social reforms, once deeper drilling is technically possible.

Any detailed cultural and semiotic analysis of Brazilianness in Germany today would look to identify the first empirical signs of the new emergent codes – in popular culture and in brand communications. This kind of bottom-up work sometimes produces surprises and highly creative left-field ideas. The logic of code trajectories in this area so far (Residual to Dominant to the first glimpses of the Emergent) suggests that new codes that would appeal in Germany might well function in these areas:

• maintaining and strengthening the idea of democracy

• oil revenues strengthening social equality and justice (overcoming the negatives associated with the Chavez era in neighbouring Venezuela)

• Brazilian artists and intellectuals becoming more prominent on global culture & thinking

• Brazilians as the beautiful people – stretching this notion culturally into the pursuit of the aesthetic

• Sao Paulo is a key player in the world’s most aspirational industry: beauty.

Brazil has a potent mixture of associations that can propel it to a new level that many other emerging countries lack – at its core is the perception that Brazil is NOT hampered by the lack of free expression and decentralised power that remains, in Western developed markets a cause for concern and caution in, for example, Russia, China and the Arab World.  

© Oliver Litten 2011

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: UK Notes

Friday, January 28th, 2011

 

Part of Semionaut's wiki experiment to identify emergent cross-cultural codes of Brazilianness, these notes follow the format in the project briefing.  The aim of these (and any other national inputs to follow) is not to be exhaustive or even provoke debate but to start the ball rolling and stimulate further observations and insights, particularly in the Emergent area.  Please add your builds below or send your own post for the Brazil mash-up to editorial@semionaut.net . 

INTRODUCTION

From a UK perspective the potential trajectory towards the ‘Brazilian Dream’ (see our briefing) is based on a deep underlying affinity for Brazilian-ness – delight in a perceived spontaneous & light-hearted grace, sensuality and creative accomplishment . Ways ahead will maintain and develop on these historically rooted positives.

RESIDUAL CODES

Underlying cultural archetypes:

Portuguese exploration & colonies, paralleling British maritime/colonial history – the Spanish were the enemy with popular historical narrative around that (Drake, the Armada), while the Portuguese heritage is not marked as oppositional/Other in that way

the brazil nut – traditional British favourite (alongside hazelnut, walnut, almond), association with Christmas when the nut cracker comes out

Leisure class travel and high life; pre- and immediate post-World War II era US film and music,  a generalized Latin code with seductive brown-skinned women and men, dance, romance; Flying Down to Rio movie (1933); something culturally not quite serious – exotica and novelty, “There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil” (Sinatra era swing  now refurbished by people like Harry Connick Jr., Robbie Williams, Michael Bublé).   Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’ – squarely in this tradition.  In 1960s this goes to cool jazz, something slinkier – Getz & Gilberto, Girl From Ipanema

Brazil & South American countries as off the map, haven for war criminals (Boys from Brazil novel and film); adventure, the extreme, a European not on the run goes here at his peril. Werner Herzog’s film Ftizcarraldo (1982). The Amazon – vast challenging nature. Then becoming idealized pastoral – authentic primitive culture and nature; pop star Sting posing with Amazon tribal chief.

Football the most prominent Brazilian theme (alongside the Rio carnival) for Brits. In the Residual Brazilians represented flair and silky samba skills (versus the punishing machine-like efficiency of the Germans). Good-natured poor boys learning their football barefoot on the beach and still known in adulthood and as celebrities by their nicknames. Flair and attack rather than organization and defence.

DOMINANT CODES

The favela code – pioneered in City of God (2002). Violence, extreme urban deprivation, massive gulf between rich and poor. Connecting to cultural energy, authenticity, roots, soul, affirmation – e.g. Seu Jorge

Football in the Dominant now more organized, not only associated with attacking flair. Brazil less clearly the greatest footballing nation. UK Premier League Brazilians not the best or most expensive players – Robinho didn’t deliver on his promise.

Perceived vibrancy, sexiness and preoccupation with the body – many stories around popularity of cosmetic surgery in Brazil. ‘Having a Brazilian’ = waxing to remove hair from pubic region.

Emerging powerful BRIC economy. (THE most vibrant and dynamic is more recent and still has some Emergent edge). Lula initially heralding swing to the left since echoed elsewhere in South America. Context of callapse of post-Thatcher economic and political agendas in UK leaving a vacuum in ideology and political philosophy. New alternatives to evolve in Latin America as in East Asia?

Ongoing thread of Carnival culture, joy. Enviable Brazilian ability to let go, be happy, enjoy life.

Brazilian embodied knowledge, combined with physical grace and a hint of spirituality – Capoeira. Also connoting rich cultural diversity, synergies.

EMERGENT CODES

Crossing the borderline into the emergent codes

More widespread exposure for more Brits to Brazilians living in UK. Effectively part of the new immigrant or transient working class (with other Latin Americans, East Europeans, people from the Middle East). Nothing challenges the stereotypes more than meeting real Brazilians (the cleaner who’s better educated than you are, the thoroughness and work ethic that sits beside a relaxed attitude towards life – an unfamiliar combination for North Europeans). Our picture is of tribute artwork to Brazilian plumber Jean Charles Menezes, shot seven times in the head by London Metropolitan police on 22nd July 2005 under the misapprehension that he was a Muslim terrorist.

Brazil as the economic star currently of the BRICs and on a morale and cultural upsurge with World Cup and Olympics coming. Important context here is that Brazil is perceived to be deserving of both these awards. Especially in the comparative context – UK media orthodoxy on the 2018 World Cup is that England deserved it but Russia got it. Qatar getting  the 2022 World Cup perceived as an outrageous (FIFA corruption) cultural anomaly. So Brazil’s success is in some way the last gasp of normality. UK cultural is configured to like Brazilians – it’s difficult at a discursive level in UK to NOT like Brazilians. Quite patronizing in some ways (viewing Brazilians as child-like e.g. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Brazilian pronunciation of ‘Brazil’ with final consonant like an English ‘w’ could have a charming child-like ring for an English ear.

There are gaps where UK could be receptive to new emergent codes from Brazil. Consistent with trajectories of change would be:

• a Brazil-specific manifestation of something which has the groundedness and versatility of hip-hop but is clearly local, coming from another place – not imitating U.S.

• a creative favela culture – City of God energy 10 years on expressed in craft, dance, music, literature, film

• a positive ethic of social responsibility and community which is non-PC, active, progressive and enlists widespread popular support (reconciling the opposition between a discredited hands-off market fundamentalism on one the hand and ongoing concerns about, say, the Chinese model of centralized state power and responsibility on the other).

CONCLUSION

Future opportunities will be about building from the positive base noted above in the introduction. In terms of economic, environmental, social and intellectual vision – expressed not so much in abstract as in in concrete forms (e.g. cultural platforms as potentially rich, cross-media and transforming as something like hip-hop) or new forms of governance and organization, e.g. at the level of cities, that engage innovatively with environmental degradation and social inequality. And help restore some joy and optimism to the poor, put-upon non-elite majority of Brits.

With many thanks to Gareth Lewis and Chris Arning.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Americas, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

What it means to be human

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Ours is a culture in crisis where we’re struggling to figure out what it means to be human. We are deeply fixated in the virtual world and enviously in chase of the latest technology. At the same time we are experiencing an anxiety over the liquidation of self in a fluid, constantly innovating world.

Once we have logged and given away our noteworthy moments on Facebook and Twitter, we cease to retain them as a testament to our own heritage. As we prove our progress we appear just as much in need of a way to define ourselves in reverse— away from the oppressive filtration of ourselves into digitized experiences that can be uploaded and streamed instantly across time and space.

The proof of this conflict has been confirmed by the popularization of two opposing types of codes. On the one hand, there are those symbols that demonstrate our ideals about advancement into the promising future.  Tech logos, for example, are as slippery and fluid in line quality and shape as our transient, efficient lives — void of details or adornments which might refer specifically to time period or place. As reassuring as they are of our relevance, we are equally comforted by signifiers of uninhibited, amateurish self-expression. They are awkwardly analog, irregular and imperfect in line quality and shape.  The two stills from Microsoft's TV spots "People Ready" illustrate this well.  This humble, bumbling style has emerged in an effort to monumentalize our real selves …free to live outside, mainstream expectations and the compulsion to move ahead feverishly. 

 

Interestingly, these signifers frequently appear in advertisement for these same tech companies. Perhaps that have become the latest and most important trust marks of authenticity and heritage—the company’s silent promise that our humanity will not be lost in the adoption of the innovative product they’re offering.

© Michael Colton  2011

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Categories, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Once in a blue moon

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

New Year 2010 when we celebrated the arrival of Semionaut, in Cairo and Boston, was the night of a blue moon. A blue moon, the second full moon in a calendar month, is propitious in Egypt where everybody knows about it, and throughout the world even if you’re unaware it’s blue moon or are a conscious unbeliever. Like astrology, you’re not sure you believe in it but people say it works anyway. Hitler believed in astrology. He was also an amphetamine freak, a non-smoker and a vegetarian. So watch out. And good luck.  There was luck in abundance when the blue moon hung over the Nile.

Between us (founders Josh Glenn and Malcolm Evans) we brought Semionaut to here. Malex Salamanques joined us briefly suggesting a name change to Semionaut then left to enjoy full-time motherhood. ‘Semionaut’ Malex saw in some lorum ipsum filler text for another website in preparation. It chimed with the name of one of Josh’s earlier projects, Hermenaut. I saw it in print, used by Nicolas Bourriaud in The Radicant  – semionauts as people who invent trajectories between signs, setting “forms in motion, using them to generate journeys by which they elaborate themselves as subjects”, “translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing.” More specifically the semionaut mindset, in Bourriaud’s terms, is manifest in activities such as conceptual art, cultural recycling and upcycling, sampling, co-creation, hacking, dj-ing, any form of cultural work that closes the gap between consumption and production.

Let us say that semionauts engage with the world of signs, codes, media, culture, theory, the creative industries and disciplines – in ways at once involved and detached. The detachment of the anthropologist from another planet or participant-observer aware at all times of the semiotic monkey sitting on her shoulder (invisible to others) streaming commentary literal and metaphorical, pertinent and impertinent.  Detached yes but also wholehearted, synaesthesic, libidinal, obsessive (don’t say ‘passionate’ now an empty corporate cliché denoting absence of thought or feeling), in terms of immersion in cultures, communications, how we decode them, recode them, and try to optimize how they work for the benefit and interest of a select few, many, or people everywhere.

Our core group of writers so far work mainly in the practical application of semiotics and cultural theory to further understanding of cultures, communications, trends from mega to micro and the ever evolving world of brands. Our aim was to be global. In the first year we featured contributions from 20 countries, 5 continents. Heartfelt thanks to you all.  A year ago this existed only virtually in the imaginations of two people. The actual Semionaut has been created by its network of amazing contributors.

And now…

• Making that network more of a community

• Strengthening the global with regional editors/content commissioners and special issues – e.g. India, China, Latin America, Australasia, North Africa & the Middle East…

• Moving towards more collaborative and eventually cross-cultural group work – see the recent comparison of beauty codes in India and UK by Hamsini Shivakumar and Louise Jolly. 

• Evolving more of a news and features feel around areas our readers and contributors are involved in – specifically supplying commercially applied semiotic and cultural analysis (for brands, political parties, NGOs and activist groups, architectural practices, regulators etc.); commissioning this type of work as a client; teaching, academically researching or studying these subjects; using the kind of perspectives we engage with (“Signifying Everything”) to create or innovate in whatever way.

• Finding out more about friends of friends, word of mouth, people who happen upon Semionaut. Who are you? What are you doing? Tell us, write something for us. Welcoming the type of article we published last year (old and new friends, please keep them coming!) we’re also looking early 2011 for reflection streams, starting with regular Semionaut writers, on the business of applied semiotics and cultural analysis. Bringing to the surface a core of interests more implicit up to now. And for this making it more spontaneous, personal, raw. We’ll send specific questions out to some old and new friends and ask for answers not too considered. Experience in innovation tells us the best, most original ideas emerge from a group when people are asked first to frame issues personally and not think about it too much. “How can I know what I think till I see what I say”. E.M. Forster wrote that (I thought it was Alice till I searched it).

To keep things personal there will be some specific probes: context (what’s happening round you right now, catching your attention?); big picture (what’s your day to day headline to yourself on where things are headed for the world of signifying everything?); acknowledgement (who’s helping make things work for you); sound track (what’s playing in your head as you think these thoughts?)

Here goes:

Context: first night in a new apartment with a beautiful view of the sea and a sense of arrival; a laptop lost while moving in, along with the draft of this piece, returned today by a friendly taxi driver.

Big picture headline: students in Tunisia just got rid of at least one expression of a corrupt political establishment; this summer England.

Love marks: Josh Glenn. Awesome. Really famous by the end of 2011 – put money on it. And RIP Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart, who was the Josh Glenn of the hippy days: “Beam in on me baby and we’ll beam together/You know we’ve always been together/ But there’s more…”.

Sound track: If you don't know the tune you must hear it. And Google the lyric in honour of the students. “We Can Be Together” by Jefferson Airplane. 

Let us know what you think.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | 2 Comments »

New Home New Language

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In Bulgaria the financial crisis has reduced the amount of advertising and encouraged an increasing focus on price and savings. However there are still strong signs of creativity in this local market, a good example being the campaign run by Baumaxx – one of the biggest retail chains in Central and Eastern Europe, which specializes in materials for construction, home repair and supplies.

Like the better known brand Ikea, Baumaxx focuses its communication on the idea ‘do it with your hands’ – but does so deploying a distinctive mix of low price messaging, a promise of shopping comfort and convenience and making it clear that the offer extends beyond furniture to a wide range of domestic goods. In Central Europe the TV spots use Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ playing behind an appropriate domestic narrative. In Bulgaria Baumaxx also uses distinctive local language and humour in its advertising.

After the summer season 2010 there was a little more time and probably some money for households to spend on renovating their homes. Baumaxx caught that wave and used it aggressively in order to respond to the increasing demand in the repair and maintenance sector in the months before winter – and to cut through the messaging clutter as there are a lot of players in this marketplace. An integrated marketing campaign deployed booklets, 7-second TV spots, radio spots, a massive billboard presence and the launch of a Baumaxx a group on Facebook. 

In the Bulgarian market the new and highly creative Baumaxx print and TV campaigns featured two young characters, one male one female, and a dynamic (even aggressive) hip-hop flavoured tonality. Such communication codes have been extremely popular in local advertising for fashion brands, telecoms and some food and snacks products – but were unknown till now in the big retail chain category. 

By way of illustration, Baumaxx advertising uses colloquial everyday phrases prominently in radio spots and as headlines in the print ads and billboards. In the print ad shown here Baumaxx points out different products which may be purchased as a good bargain, each one representing a different department of the store. The original elements in the ads are not the prices themselves but the presentation of home repair as a fun, energetic process which fits young people’s taste. Till now home repair was associated with older, family people. The whole message positions what used to be regarded as tiresome maintenance of the home as something easy and, with the support of Baumaxx, very much in the consumer’s control. Among other wordplays here deploying street metaphors, phrases taken from actual everyday language include “The prices break off” (Цените къртят), which also connotes something being ‘cool’ (Кърти мивки), and “Prices are concrete”/“Prices are iron”, i.e. the prices are low and solid and this is for sure [Нещата са бетон, железни са].

What we see here is youth codes beginning to mature and cross into categories that target an older life stage as the consumer target groups accustomed to more nuanced and culturally attuned styles of brand communication themselves grow a little older. In the case of Baumaxx a direct down-to-earthness which is part of the ‘cool’ cultural appeal of hip-hop, interpreted here through colloquial ‘street’ Bulgarian idiomatic language, skillfully combines creative appeal with a clear and hard-hitting message on value. The general principle is that at times of relative economic constraint there are ways of talking about price and value in a stylish, culturally connected, even quite edgy tone of voice – rather than having to go with just a crude, functional, stripped-down price message.

© Dimitar Trendafilov  2010

 

Links
 

http://www.vbox7.com/play:b8f69c16

http://www.facebook.com/pages/BauMax-Bulgaria/113068988755021

Posted in Brand Worlds, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Korea’s Flag of Learning

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

These are typical images about war or revolution and victory. With the drama and the symbolism of the flag they show a mighty determination to win even if the cost is death. On the left Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February 1945) and on the right Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Less familiar to most of us is the middle image – which is in fact an advertisement for a private education company offering extracurricular lessons for primary and high school students after their normal classes. In this dramatic Korean ad, the bold and dynamic handwriting says 'Let’s go ahead a grade' – that is to say fight, win, move ahead with a higher mark.

Private education provision always implies social hierarchy and a competitive arena in which the stakes are high. If public education aims to provide a level playing field, the private provision tilts it and sets the odds in favour of the child and the parents who give an extra push in terms of time and resource. Our featured image for this article (on the Semionaut home page) shows scenes from a Korean university advertisement. On the left, the lady proudly states “my child is studying at the university”. On the right she questions the professor about how good the university is. So this is not just about individual students but about families, not just personal striving but a kind of team battle.

“If you sleep 5 hours you will fail to enter a university, but if you sleep 4 hours, you can enter a university” is a common adage given as advice to high school students in Korea. The education system has had a strong market dimension to it in Korea since the early days of modernization in the 1970s with the New Community Movement. Investment of time and money can lead to good results which, in turn, can get the student into a good school. Images of hard work, cut-throat competition and exhausted students are already familiar from a country like Japan but the promotional rhetoric at least seems to have escalated even further in Korea.

So far we have seen one example of the family as the student’s greatest ally and another in which educational success is metaphorically linked to military triumph. This latter association is, in fact, now an expression of an increasingly familiar code. Here are two others ads for Korean universities in which the iconography of the flag against the sky depicts the triumph of the student/warrior over all opposition, while a third (right) states “Sharp intelligence conquers the world, with the sword of this university”.

With the shelling of Yeonpyeong island by North Korean forces in November 2010 the world was reminded of a military context which has been part of Krean consciousness, language and popular culture for over half a century. Wr and fighting metaphors have had positive connotations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 and through subsequent periods of national regeneration and economic growth.

In Korea, when people want to say something like 'Let's do it together' or even 'Cheer up', they say “Fighting!”  Related to this “If you feel you cannot do it you have to force yourself to do it!” is a common attitude. The language of war and military conflict is commonplace in international business discourse with its metaphors of ‘strategy’, ‘outflanking the opposition’, the ‘coup’ and so forth. What’s distinctive about this area of Korean culture and communication is the explicitness of such warlike imagery – and its insistent presence in an arena which is so central and so critical in young people’s preparation for adult life.

© Hyaesook Yang 2010

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense | 2 Comments »

Canadian Beer: Identity, Bottled

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Dionysus, the lovely Greek lad responsible for wine and madness, was what was known as a “god of epiphany” — as in, he took time out of his busy deific schedule to appear, in the flesh, to humans. And of course he would; drinking booze in correct amounts generally leads to all kinds of epiphanies.

Since 2000, Canada has had its own alcohol-incited epiphany, thanks to the Canadian division of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and its popular beer, Molson Canadian.

Molson Canadian is responsible for arguably the most ambitious campaign to create, and confirm, the Canadian identity — something that on a good day eludes easy definition, and on a bad day seems to barely exist at all. We have bland aesthetic signifiers: Our national symbol is a leaf, our national bird is the loon, there’s a moose on one side of our quarters and on the other side is the queen of another country.

But Molson tells a different story. In a series of quick, athletic cuts, the ad shows off Canada’s theatrical topographic beauty: a barren, rugged playground that only the godlike can navigate. The narrator explains, “It’s this land that shapes us.” Four ecstatic people sprint off the edge of a cliff, into a lake… “There’s a reason why we run off the dock instead of tippy-toe in. It’s because that water is frozen six months a year.” And, according to our “yeah, DUDE!” narrator, it’s not just the great outdoors we Canadians are chasing, it’s freedom itself.

It’s the kind of self-mythology one associates with America, not timid ol’ peacekeeping Canada, the country with tidy cities where people apologize for just about everything.

In fact, the ad is so concerned with kicking up some nationalistic spirit that the mention of the actual product comes at 0:47, almost as an afterthought. “There’s a beer that comes from the same land that we let loose on, and it’s proved to be as clean, crisp and fresh as the country it comes from.”

There’s no doubt that the ads have done their job. The grandfather of the campaign was the legendary (in Canada) “I Am Canadian” advertisement that depicted a character called Joe Canada doing a rant on the finer points of being Canadian. “I’m not a lumberjack, or a fur trader. And I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dog sled… I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal.” It remains one of the — if not the — most famous television ad in Canadian television history.

And, fittingly, it was announced just this week that Jeff Douglas, the actor who plays Joe Canada, will take over as the co-host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship radio program, As It Happens. Perhaps his experience in beer-based pride-mongering will give Canadians a cleaner, crisper, more refreshing  take on themselves… With only 5% alcohol, and no aftertaste.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Cross-Cultural Design FAIL

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Cross-cultural collaboration is a trend that continues to spread and open new pathways. A wonderful example is the latest trend in world music: Afro-Cuban music. "AfroCubism" (Nonesuch, November 2010) is an album that grew out of a project aiming to find a cultural synergy between Africa and Latin America. The transnational collaboration between Malian and Cuban musicians was intended to demonstrate that music has no linguistic barriers. Alas, political barriers got in the way: a problem with Malian passports and Cuban visas meant that the collaboration was delayed for fourteen years. In the meantime, "Buena Vista Social Club" — a collaboration between Cuban and American musicians — became a global success.

Historically, Cuban music was built on the foundations of African immigration, and West African music was hugely influenced by Cuban music. It is not strange to hear stories of people in Mali dancing and singing to the rhythms of Cuban songs in the Sixties. Cuban music was heard more in the African continent than the other way round, but the connection between the two cultures was always there.

Musically, "AfroCubism" demonstrates the project's collaborative spirit and reveals the cultural synergy between Mali and Cuba.  Unfortunately, the cover design entirely fails to connect with the project's original idea. Unless you are versed in the history of Modern and African art, the primary associations derived from the design are disengaged from the emotional narrative built behind AfroCubism — i.e., the historical synergy between Mali and Cuba. The concept behind the graphic design seems intended to attract the European public, which contradicts the spirit of the project.

The semiotic genesis of this particular design — geometric shapes, modern colour schemes, clear drawings of bodies deconstructed with instruments moving around — shouts "Cubism." Although the association with Cubism can provide a multiple and constantly shifting viewpoint that could be applied to a collaborative, cross-cultural project, such association seems to be just a linguistic excuse to portray the Cuban part of AfroCubism. The immediate associations of Cubism are far removed from Cuba-ness, creating a cultural distance effect with regards to the basic associations of AfroCubism. The relationship between West African masks and their influence on Picasso’s work is clear and it helps the connection with the Afro part of the title, but where is the primary association of Picasso and Cuba?

I'm not judging the aesthetic value of the cover, nor the dexterity of its well-known designer (whose work I admire). However, the "AfroCubism" cover is a good example of the importance of design and semiotics in the portrayal of cultural identities and experiences. Graphic designers and semioticians are central in the execution of many ideas that are consumed around the globe; therefore, they are actors in the quest of the authentic. Though their background work is invisible to the public, the results of their work help to construct new cultural experiences and connect to individuals at a deeper level. The responsibility for the creation of designs that connect with people and cultural realities is high and will be higher in years to come, especially if we take seriously the spirit of collaboration.

Posted in Africa, Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local | 1 Comment »

Sandy Claws

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Santa Claus? Sandy Claws. Ebullient tubster with heaving heart? Pie scoffing Bogeyman with sinister streak. Provider of pleasure? Pleasure seeker. Daft attire? Devil wear. Hilarious hat? Horny head.

Does Santa Claus exist? A quick web trawl proves indecisive. What's clear, though, is that there are more people fighting his corner than not. Particularly convincing is Henry Gee, who suggests Santa is (duh!) a Macroscopic Quantum Object: 'Following the logic of the two-slit experiment, it is perfectly possible for Santa to visit all the good children of the world simultaneously, provided that he does so unseen. If he is spotted, his wavefunction will collapse and he will be revealed as your Dad with a comedy beard after all.'

 

That solves that then. But what does it really mean to ask if Santa exists? In other words, who, or what, is Santa anyway?

There seem to be two answers. One the one hand, Santa is the same poorly camouflaged portly charmer he's always been. A figure uniquely appreciative of a child's capacity for wonder. An unfailing public servant who only indirectly costs the taxpayer any money. On the other hand, Santa is increasingly depicted as something of a liability.

The skateboarding brand Bench has an outpost at the bottom of my road. This Christmas, they're offering 25% off everything in store (unless you skateboard, and are endowed with what they call 'core muscles', I'd remain seated. This discount isn't for you). The odd, highly non-sequiturial thing is the marketing of this reduction as Santa's own 'transgressive secret'.

According to Bench, we can add Santa's name to the long list of celebrities whose careers have at one point or another veered off the sleigh-rails. Mugshots of a disgraced Mr Claus blanket the shop windows. Black eye, ripped stockings, missing hat — altogether battered. 'After too much sherry, don't rely on Santa to get your presents right', reads the website. As with clowns, and Mr Whippy van-drivers, one assumes that being Father Christmas demands regular and fairly copious bouts of liquid enhancement. Maintaining such eternal merriment must be hard work.

In fact, as an aside, the notion of a deliriously plastered Santa makes some empirical sense. Fly agaric — a highly toxic kind of mushroom with mind altering properties — is routinely imbibed by grazing Lapland reindeer. Because of their size, the fungus has no negative effect on the animals whatsoever. Although in its raw state fly agaric is potentially deadly to humans, as it passes through a reindeer's urinary system it is stripped of this fatal stripe, and emerges out the other end still retaining a great deal of its hallucinogenic punch. The piss can then be safely sampled, and fun-for-all kaleidoscopic mayhem is guaranteed to follow. The kind of kaleidoscopic mayhem, you could argue, likely to bring about visions of flying reindeer…

Aside over. An impromptu quantitative guess, based on nothing other than my own sense of statistical convenience for the purposes of this article, suggests there are at least as many bad Santas as there are good ones. A recent episode of Family Guy has Santa as an anaemic, exhausted wreck presiding over a factory crammed full of in-bred Elves. Outside, radioactive, sabre-toothed reindeer lie in wait for workers who can't hack the pace. 'Christmas', they all sing, 'is killing us'.

And it doesn't end with Santa himself. This year, why not get your hands on some Alien vs. Predator crochet danglers? Would a Death Star bauble look good hanging from a shaky limb of your tree? In 2009, consumers in the UK managed to propel Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' to the top of the Christmas singles chart. This year, a song called Liar Liar by Captain Ska, which holds a bejewelled middle finger up at the country's coalition political leadership, looks likely to find similar success. It used to be Teletubbies, X-Factor winners and, well, Love, Actually. What happened?

Sick of the sickly. Fed up with the familiar. We all got bored. Rapid commercialisation is also rabid — it spreads, neutralises, and renders redundant the energy that abounds at this time of year. That vivacity is being clawed back. It's the Christmas Spirit, but not as we know it. The human tendency towards disruption peaks when all around is soft and sparkling, shiny, precious and perfect. The antidote? Why not pour yourself a tall glass of reindeer piss? There'll be a sooty thump coming from the fireplace any day now. The source might not be quite what you had in mind. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Utopia in Movement? Or Dystopia?

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

In 2010, dance achieved unprecedented status as a cultural signifier in the UK. TV ballroom dance show Strictly Come Dancing continued to transfix viewers, StreetDance 3D came out in cinemas, while US musical-based show Glee also won millions of fans.

This new status was fully consecrated when dance was chosen as the theme of retailer Marks and Spencer’s Christmas ad — the launch of which is a major cultural landmark in the British festive calendar.

This is no longer a self-conscious postmodern idea of subjectivity as performance. Instead, it’s a utopian fantasy of unity, dance providing images of togetherness that bypass the constantly misfiring agon of language.

London choreographer Yael Loewenstein says that “mass dance scenes in advertising often offer up the dream that we're on the brink of a massive paradigm shift — something positive, something powerful, something we do together, with this phase being our warm-up!”

Nonetheless, the M&S ad offers a vision of togetherness that’s as tightly choreographed as a drill, ending with the menacing line ‘Don’t put a foot wrong this Christmas’.

Suddenly the performance looks more like a military parade, showing that glitzy dance forms may be more than escapist fun for countries at war. Is it possible that the precision of the military drill is encoded into the very homogeneity of the chorus line?

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Phone Box, RIP

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

One of British street artist Banksy's most notorious pieces shows a red phone box prone — dumped in a side street, bent as if it were the twisted corpse of a road accident victim hit at high speed. The phone box has a pick-axe through its dorsal area and its windows are smeared by its own blood and viscera. The awkward angle signifies the squalid nature of its death — as if it were running away from its assailant and halfway round a corner when it ran out of time.

In the context of the gradual privatizing of Britain this is poignant visual commentary indeed — one of several semiotic warning signs showing how far along this process is. The growth of non-spaces signify the warping of the public realm; phone boxes are a victim of this warping.

In his book Multimodality, author Gunther Kress writes about social semiotics: "It is the social which generates the 'cultural' and, in that the 'semiotic'." He goes on to write: "In advanced capitalist conditions, the market actively fosters social fragmentation as a means of maximizing the potential of niche markets… The subjectivity preferred by the market is that of 'consumer'." Like the post box and Post Office, red phone boxes used to be seen as signs of the public polity, as a public good. A call for 10p piece and the small queues you sometimes saw outside even sparked some public discourse. Alas, red phone boxes have taken a beating. First they lost their red coats and became ugly glass vitrines. Then, through the 1990s, as mobile phone penetration robbed them of their utility, they lost their clientele. It was good to talk (said Bob Hoskins in a famous British Telecom ad), but now it is good to text.

Phone boxes have become relics: crass and unsightly ciphers of the materialism of 2010-era Britain. They stand as pointless sentinels on the street ignored by all but the homeless and reckless. They are invariably empty, with the phone either disconnected or the receiver hanging  forlornly by its cord. Banner advertising (10th anniversary of Spearmint Rhino anybody?) wrapped on the outside often obscures what is inside. Invariably this will be the calling cards of the sex industry — a gallery of scopophilia. 'Busty brunettes', 'Oriental honeys' and other flotsam thrown up by the latest wave of sex trafficking direct their blandishments at the passerby. The smiles and burnished curves belie the emptiness of a transaction that costs much more than a 10p phone call. Inside they define the word insalubrious, usually smell of urine, and someone has scrawled a slanderous sexual accusations onto the phone console with a key.

Sordid, dilapidated, empty — but selling sex. The phone box is a signifier of the cheapening of life in Britain, hollowing out of public spaces, outsourcing of public services and the vacuum of a Tory cabinet bereft of ideas. It's a proxy for the triumph of consumerism over communication.

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

The Spirit of Youth

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

A new film from Sao Paolo’s Box 1824 analyses three stages in the youth culture revolution, culminating in today’s utopian mash-up manifesto for Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation.

We all want to be young, the voiceover begins. The video continues with a vertiginous collage of movies that depict the first steps in the liberation of the 1950s youth, blessed as they were by the gods of rock and roll. The film enthusiastically moves on, decade by decade, in engaging evolution.

We All Want to Be Young from box1824 on Vimeo.

The body of the film is comprised of movie scenes and numerous cultural fragments, gracefully thrown on the screen. This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the piece. Its high energy stems from something the world's greatest DJs have been familiar with for quite a long time: themash-up. The mix-and-match overlaps of cultural fragments define a new order of meaning, because not only are the images involved illustrative, but they also have a context background in our minds and in the mind of culture itself. The voiceover creates guidance in meaning, but the side stories are created by images 'stolen' from the cultural screen.

Beyond the aesthetic purposes of a DJ’s tricks, the most relevant essence of mash-ups arises when they are used to reveal peculiar kind of ethics; in this case: the youth ethics. As spectators of the piece, we experience a sense of guidance. We understand a sequence: the birth and evolution of the 'spirit of youth' along the course of time. 

 

The spirit of youth’s firstness: 

The seed of rebellion that had been planted in the 1950s finally breaks through in the 1960s, taking root in the 1970s.  In this time, the new idea of youth is expressed in firstness, striking the world with a new order which can only be felt, not yet explained. This is the moment when the idea of the 'spirit of youth' comes to fruition and begins to grow, in power and influence. At this point, although culture bears a strong expression of the 'spirit of youth', its signified is still vague; as vague and as powerful as the words of order that mark the birth of this new paradigm: Freedom, Peace and Love.

 

The spirit of youth’s secondness: 

The 1980s introduce the imperative of consumption, fascinating young people, who become voracious consumers. Now, after winning freedom of expression and gaining a measure of power within the system, youth not only becomes consumer, but is also consumed. The image of youth is systematically engulfed by market logic, and this phenomenon expands naturally over the course of the following decades.  We may say that this new idea of youth comes into secondness with culture.  Its relationship with the cultural order is by now intense, to the point when youth and culture cannot be told apart; the two have become firmly locked into a feedback loop. The notion of tradition becomes obsolete. Everything is being recreated.


The spirit of youth’s thirdness:

The plot thickens. The 'physical' exchange between youth and culture is intensified, in the 1990s and 2000s, when technology expands at the center of this system. More than subject and spectator, the youth is now the programmer and the program of the new order. While technology appears to be an encoded system for the grown-up world, youth regards it as something simple and natural.  Far from the revolutionaries and rebels of yesteryear, we have come to identify them as the 'digital natives', almost as a form of cult or an evolution into some nearly post-human being. 'Digital natives' handle information the way we handle our biological needs: naturally. But our wonderment is merely youth deification: it essentially disregards the challenges and troubles this generation goes through, finding itself in a world that dreams of soft, but is in fact much harder than it looks.

 

The manifesto of now:

On the other hand, we do handle information more naturally than previous generations did. In a way, we are the youth (or the idea of youth) in its state of thirdness, armed with the critical capacity to look at the system and at ourselves.

We have become a kind of metaculture; one that is able to analyse itself with the materials it gets from its very culture. We are the multifacet of punks, grunge kids, skaters, surfers, clubbers, hipsters, gipsters, and so many others. We get to experience whatever we want through our individuality, but we lack the authentic, the original. We have a full range of styles laid out to our convenience, and the only originality we get to experience is mixing and matching. These mash-ups are used to create new, aesthetically pleasant hybrids, but, in order to gain critical intelligence in the face of history, we must learn how to organize them. Only then will we be able to lead mankind into an actually new world.

This video does that. Young people today think of strategies; they reflect and integrate with the framework.  I am hoping the first global and pragmatic youth is able to really cause a fissure in human culture and finally realise the founding dreams of its spirit: Freedom, Peace and Love. It seems we now understand these words not only as distant ideals, in firstness, but as ideals which are now active and alive within culture, disguised as other words. Food for thought: could it be that the good old Freedom, Peace and Love are hidden in the buzz words: Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation? In the end, it seems the spirit of youth has been helpful to everyone. Now that it is over 40, the 'spirit of youth' may finally be old enough to take the whole world in its hands.

 

© João Cavalcanti 2010

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Sequencing, Socioeconomics, Technology, Uncategorized | No Comments »

I am Saudi Woman, hear me roar

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

The image of women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the West, and the world generally, is strongly associated with being covered in black. Women were hidden in several ways — not only was a Saudi woman's face hidden but even her voice was not supposed to come out in public. In some segments of the culture, even a woman's name was not supposed to be mentioned.

Beginning with the education drive launched in the 1960s by King Faisal, many things have changed. The illiteracy of Saudi women was eroded and increasing numbers of girls went on to higher education. Some pioneers took up public positions as radio or TV presenters, as well as prominent jobs in various organizations. However, in KSA a woman was still supposed to obey her husband and support him without even taking any credit. She was supposed to bear burdens and sacrifices in silence.

Outside the home the Saudi woman could work as a teacher in girls-only schools or colleges. By the 1980s she could also have clerical jobs in ladies-only bank branches or hospitals. The medical field was actually one of the first sectors to open to women. After all, in a gender-segregated society, women needed women doctors to tend to them. But in all these professional environments there was a glass cubicle containing women as the restrictions on visibility remained dominant.

It took a number of economic and cultural variables as well as the personal leadership of King Abdullah to finally tip the scales. Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, made a point of pushing women to the fore on several public occasions — for example, by including speeches from women (who were still visually out of sight) at some events. Then he started to appear in photos taken at unsegregated gatherings — for example, when he attended the graduation ceremony of the medical school in Riyadh. This sent strong signals to men and women alike that women can come out now, and participate actively in life.

The media has played an important role in creating and feeding this movement. Saudi had female radio and TV presenters for quite a while, but in recent years some of them have become superstars. For example, because of her role as co-host on the popular TV show Kalam Nawaem (Softly Speaking; think of The View), Muna AbuSulayman [shown above; she's now head of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal's philanthropic organization], has been promoted as the 'Saudi Oprah.'

Saudi TV stations have started to compete in developing programs featuring high-achieving Saudi women., and the pages of Saudi newspapers are often splashed with photos of women, albeit always wearing the traditional abayah and headwear covering at least part of the hair. But even the abayahs are becoming more and more colorful and ‘visible’ (both in design and actual colors). They are going beyond being ‘covers’ to being also a personal expression of style. Saudi girls and women are now flooded with signals shifting their paradigm and giving a new code — 'The sky is the limit' — for what it means to be a ‘Saudi woman’.

This is not to suggest that all Saudi women are rushing out to seek a career; still, they are starting to see themselves and their roles differently. I've interviewed hundreds of women, and I'm struck by how differently their self-perception is today, compared with what it was a decade ago. The Saudi woman now wants to believe that she has an active role in her own life. How does she realize this new self-image? Sometimes through seeking to be a high-achieving career woman, but also through cooking or house-cleaning, or in allowing herself to indulge in little luxuries. Also, she's more insistent, now, on participating actively in family decisions — from which brands to select to raising the children, to choosing where to live.

In the KSA we're seeing the emergence of a media-created role model: super-women who attain the highest educations and go on to illustrious careers while remaining perfect wives, mothers, and devout Muslims. These and other communications that reflect the Saudi woman's new self-perception are generally more attractive than those that depict women as ignored, unappreciated, or weak. Saudi women are learning they can roar; it's interesting to see the culture shift in order to accommodate and encourage this movement.

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Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Office Christmas Party

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Thanks to ace cultural and semio-sleuth Stephen Seth (pardon the alliteration – a tongue-twisting test of Christmas sobriety) for the link to Adam Curtis's blog and this 1969 UK TV documentary about a London advertising agency's office Christmas party.  Try not to view this at work if anyone's watching. It's 30 minutes long.  

Go on then.

This is a fascinating piece of social history which from one angle shows our parents and grandparents involved in rituals and behaviours exactly and uncannily like what we do in UK today, but with slightly different signifiers – like an office functionary in charge of a big reel-to-reel tape recorder (which has to be switched off at 8 pm precisely) rather than a DJ.  But from another angle these scenes from a few decades ago are stranger and more defamiliarising than something we might watch in a documentary on some tribe in the New Guinea Highlands today. The past is another planet. The older Baby Boomers once lived on this one – many of them still do.

Cue The Office Party

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies | No Comments »

Virginia Valentine

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Virginia Valentine, who died on 30th November 2010, was a much loved and respected member of the international community of commercial semioticians.

Ginny, as she was known to friends and colleagues, pioneered a distinctive application of commercial semiotics in UK in the late 1980s/early 90s. Inspired by a course on the analysis of folk tales at North London Polytechnic, where she completed an English degree – and by the ferment in critical theory at that time – Ginny put together a mix of techniques adapted from Barthes (cultural meanings and codes), Propp (structure of narrative) and Claude Levi-Strauss (reconciling cultural contradictions through myth) – the latter inspiring her ‘myth quadrants’, a hallmark of the Valentine approach to analysing brand communications in cultural context. Many of today’s best known commercial semioticians, inside UK and globally, learned or refined their skills under Ginny’s tutelage. The methodology she evolved at Semiotic Solutions became the basis of a commercial approach widely applied in the UK through the 1990s and now internationally.

More akin to European semiology than American (Peircean) semiotics, the approach owed its commercial success to Ginny Valentine’s great drive, analytical acumen and proactive response to three key historical and methodological opportunities:

• The rise of brand strategy and brand management in the 1990s, inspired initially by the development of a method for formally valuing brands – and, with this, a growing appreciation of the symbolic and cultural assets associated with brands and the importance to marketing of developing and nurturing these.

• The rise of the megabrand with the globalization of markets. By presenting semiotics as primarily cultural (as opposed to the psychological approach of qualitative research direct with consumers via depth interviews and focus groups) Ginny and Semiotic Solutions put in place a readily marketable set of tools in terms of application to cross-cultural projects. Thus against the drift of lowest-common-factor global advertising, semiotics offered a unique ability to formulate highest common factor international communication strategies while also contributing detailed recommendations on executional opportunities, tweaks and no-go areas in the specific local markets involved.

• Third was the introduction of something new not covered by academic semiological/semiotic thinking. This was the identification of ‘emergent codes’ in culture, advertising, packaging, retail design (any aspect of brand communication – later digital, word-of-mouth etc.) It was based on a notion adapted from British cultural critic Raymond Williams – that at any point a culture (or, in this new take on applied semiotics, any area of brand communications such as car advertising, for example) is characterised by a mix of Residual (dated, recalling the past), Dominant (today’s mainstream) and Emergent (dynamic, future-oriented) codes. By using this model to map out future trajectories of change the Semiotic Solutions approach allied itself with the trends analysis much loved by brand strategy and youth culture research (and later became a powerful tool for understanding rapid change in emerging markets), adding another ace to the hand of the new improved applied semiotics methodology.

Ask a research buyer or supplier to tell you something about semiotics and the chances, in 2010, are that one of the first things mentioned will be ‘emergent codes’. Some time someone may write a history of all this. In retrospect it's strange to have been present at the birth of a minor meme. At Semiotic Solutions we initially divided things into the ‘old paradigm’ versus the ‘new paradigm’ and used this opposition as a springboard for recommendations on where brands should be heading with their communications. But ‘paradigm’ is a risky word  – synonymous for some with jargon for its own sake, and undoubtedly tricky for a new methodology trying to persuade prospective buyers it was accessible and actionable. 

Here a short digression. Marketers are often scornful of jargon but not their own jargon – ‘actionability’, or capacity to be applied by an organization in practice, being a case in point. ‘Actionable’ is OK but the word ‘academic’, in contrast, connotes for marketing people as for football pundits ‘futile’ and ‘pointless’. Ginny whose initial career training was at UK's Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA) had no problem improvising beautifully between colloquial and technical registers, fashioning a discourse she played with verve and humour – one which colleagues and clients came to love as a kind of Ginny poetry.  At a meeting I attended last week John Cassidy (CEO of The Big Picture), unaware of her illness and the fact that it was entering its final stage, recalled spontaneously and affectionately a semiotic debrief for Ambrosia where Ginny started by talking the assembled client and agency group through what she called "the cosmic landscape of rice-puddingness".

Returning to paradigms, one day (in the process of migrating from being a Shakespeare academic to an actionable semiotician) I saw the Residual-Dominant-Emergent split in a book of essays called Political Shakespeare and suggested it at Semiotic Solutions as a tool we might use instead of old vs new paradigms. The rest is mini-meme history. Every origin myth requires a primal gang and none of this could have happened without first and supremely Ginny, her life- and business-partner Monty Alexander and our dear friend Greg Rowland, then the young master of the emergent code. Here the Supremes may indeed provide a good analogy – with Greg (Mary Wilson, moody intimations of depth) and myself (Cindy Birdsong, cute and vacuous – me, not Cindy) as the backing singers. Monty as a composite of Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones. And no dispute ever about who would be Diana Ross.

The Norfolk/Suffolk border in the East of England is covered in snow today (30th November 2010). In a garden near the village of Garboldisham there’s a memorial to Monty Alexander put up by Ginny after his death in 2008. It quotes some lines from Omar Khayam about the passing of time, appreciating the pleasures and the wonder of life. Ginny died at home at 4 a.m. this morning, peacefully, surrounded by the family she loved.  

It is fervently to be hoped – though Ginny as a deeply humanitarian materialist thinker, in the best philosophical sense, would have seriously doubted it (no gurufied luvvie New Age postmodern fantasist she) – that somewhere exists a cosmic landscape of ambrosial and sensorially transcendent aperitif-ness in which Ginny and Monty, rapt in each other's company, are enjoying again the first of the day.  With the sun just barely touching the yardarm.

© Malcolm Evans  2010

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | 15 Comments »

Beauty Codes in India & the UK

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Semionaut presents a back-and-forth between regular contributors Hamsini Shivakumar (India) and Louise Jolly (UK), on the topic of beauty codes in their respective cultures.

 

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1. What makes the idea of perfect beauty so powerful in your culture?

Louise: The idea of perfect beauty is a powerful and tenacious myth in so far as it promises immunity to the decay and deterioration of the physical realm. Succeeding in the ‘perfect beauty’ game means you appear to have overcome disease, ageing and death, which are our greatest fears. So ‘perfect beauty’ is about control and power as much as sexuality.

Hamsini: In India too, the appeal of ‘perfect beauty’ is about control, power and sexuality.  It is about using the power of science and technology in the pursuit of personal progress. Today, a woman’s face and figure are proven to enhance her earning power and her social status and esteem. Perfect beauty is an alluring symbol of women’s empowerment, to acquire the kind of beauty that can get the world to dance to her tune.

2. What are the codes of ‘perfect beauty’ in your culture?

Hamsini: The key code of perfection here is flawlessness. Skin that is flawless — no marks, no spots, no wrinkles, no dark circles, fair, perfect skin. Hair that is thick, strong, supple, flowing etc., etc. Science and technology are being used to eliminate the flaws that stand between the woman and the ideal of perfection. This is the role of products and of higher-order dermatological procedures. To support this, now all hair care and skin care products use the communication code of ‘measurable results’. All ads are full of the demos and cut-aways of skin layers and hair shafts showing the ‘magic’ of science in action, followed by the results — hair is x% stronger, skin is x times fairer and so on.  

Louise: One code that’s noticeable currently in UK culture is ‘performance’. ‘Perfect beauty’ doesn’t just mean concealing imperfections with an external layer (for instance, of make-up or face cream). Instead, it’s about bringing internal processes to an optimum level of performance: for instance, boosting cell metabolism. In this sense, ‘perfect beauty’ is like a top-performing car engine, rather than just a flawless, pretty surface.

3. What are the codes of ‘real beauty’? Is it a strong alternative or counter-point?
 

Louise: Dove has created an understanding of ‘real beauty’ that’s all about psychological authenticity — revealing the real person underneath the skin. While it’s won many fans, the code faces two conceptual problems. Firstly, do beauty consumers really go for the idea of a ‘true self’, or do they prefer the mutability that comes with the concept of self-as-construct (a ‘pick and mix’ of identifications and fantasies)? And secondly, it’s hard for brands to sell products unless they’re offering some form of transformation or improvement. So Dove is now turning to ideas of clinical efficacy and expertise — as in its new global hair platform ‘Damage Therapy’ [example above].

Hamsini:  Dove’s campaign for real beauty never really took off in India and Unilever ran it in a very limited way here. While women here always acknowledge the importance of inner beauty for a woman, meaning not losing intrinsic feminine qualities such as caring, nurturing, sensitivity, that does not make a strong selling proposition for beauty brands — which are expected to aid in visible improvement or transformation of looks.

4. Are any brands or celebrities moving into new territory?

Hamsini: In India, the movie stars continue to be the aspirational beacons and icons and Aishwarya Rai [shown above] continues to reign supreme as the most beautiful woman in India. She is herself a vision of perfect beauty. The media often presents the woman of substance as a counter-point to the perfect and glamorous beauty of the movie stars. These are high-achiever women in various fields who are not conventionally good-looking at all, but focus on presenting their own looks in the most attractive manner. 

Louise: In the UK, American celebrities like Dita von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Lady Gaga have been very influential in shaping beauty codes. These icons challenge the opposition between ‘real beauty’ and ‘perfect beauty’ by offering highly constructed forms of beauty that remain idiosyncratic and unique. In other words, they’re neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘real’, which opens up another option for women: self-construction that doesn’t aspire to perfection.

5. Final thoughts

Louise: From what you say, Hamsini, it seems that science and technology are crucial to beauty discourse in India — almost as if the role of flawless beauty is to manifest the power of the technology you can harness (as much as technology just playing a support role to beauty). It also struck me that you brought up the idea of beauty as enhancing earning power and personal progress — so contributing to women’s success in public life. Yet, in an interesting contradiction, the media still distinguishes  between ‘beautiful/glamorous’ women and their ‘intelligent/successful/substantial’ counterparts — going back to the old opposition between ‘pretty’ and ‘clever’ in femininity.

Hamsini: Couple of things struck me as interesting in your analysis, Louise. The first is just how compelling the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty is in a capitalist, consumerist society — for various reasons. The second idea is that of beauty as power, something that is as old as mankind, perhaps — but now democratized and available to all women who have the inclination and the money. The third idea is to be able to choose your own ideal of beauty and remake yourself to that — an idea which requires the woman to have tremendous confidence in herself as a social leader. I wonder if in a hierarchical society like India, women will warm up to the thought of being so singular.

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Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

His & Hers

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

A recent post over at Sociological Images, a social science blog that "encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry," has some excellent points to make about how male and female bodies are represented abstractly on public restroom doors in various countries…

Almost universally, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts; except in Iran, where men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs. Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength. And so forth. Click on the "full story" link for many eye-opening examples.

Posted in Americas, Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

NASA Scientists announce…

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A new reason for germophobes to feel anxious!

In the US in recent years, anti-bacterial product advertising has moved steadily away from George W. Bush-style coding (military precision, a besieged mentality, the depiction of bacteria, germs, viruses as alien intruders) towards Barack Obama-style coding (efficiency, connective thinking, dialogue, reasonableness, awareness of complexity). To use language borrowed from Raymond Williams by Semiotic Solutions, in US antibac coding lately, overkill has been trending "residual" while underkill has been trending "emergent." Like the repressed, however, the residual always returns.

Purell's ad, released in record time after yesterday's announcement that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is alien to all other life forms as we've known them, is a perfect example of the use of satire (signaled, in this TV spot, by a tone of exaggerated portentousness) to reboot and leverage a played-out cultural or communications code. Overkill's comeback begins… now. Click on the "full story" link below to view the ad.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Semiotics | No Comments »

Meet the Herbivores

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Gender relations have emerged in Japan as a topic of heated debate, not least due to the emergence of what have come to be referred to as the ‘herbivores’: a generation of young men who shirk traditional notions of masculinity in favour of a softer, more gender neutral perspective on life. If media polls are anything to go by, up to 75% of all males aged 20-35 identify with the “herbivore” mentality.

A fiercely patriarchal society, the traditional Japanese masculine archetype is physically and emotionally strong, fiercely competitive, decisive and hardworking. A man’s path in life is to provide for his family and stay loyal to his employer, making the social and financial ambitions of both his society and his company his own. The aspirational man is to study hard, enter university, find employment at a well established Japanese company and slog it out until he is either retired or dead (in more than a few cases, from overwork). Women are objects to be wooed and wined with lavish lack of restraint, the extravagance of the chase being a measure of the man’s success and masculine prowess.

Enter the herbivore. Products of the economic turmoil of the post-bubble era, employment was never a given for them and a university degree could just as easily be a ticket to NEET-dom as a door to financial stability. With the demise of corporate infalli